GREENBURGH, N.Y. (AP) — Here is how much Amare Stoudemire has changed the New York Knicks: He cautioned they can’t get too satisfied with their success.
Yes, those longtime losers are suddenly getting used to winning.
The Knicks are playing their best basketball in nearly a decade, and they don’t believe that will stop just because the schedule is about to turn tougher.
“We can’t get comfortable with the situation we’re in now, but I feel if we continue to play as well as we have been and keep improving defensively, we have a chance to do something very special,” Stoudemire said Thursday after practice.
The Knicks have won six straight, 11 of 12, and are now 14-9, the furthest they’ve been over .500 since finishing 48-34 in the 2000-01 season. That was the last time New York even finished with a winning record, and is currently mired in a franchise-worst stretch of nine straight losing seasons.
There was little reason to predict that would end earlier this season, when they started 3-8 with some ugly performances against some lowly teams. Stoudemire even wondered after one of them if a winning mentality simply didn’t exist in New York.
He seems to be building one now.
Stoudemire has emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate in his first season since leaving Phoenix. He has scored 30 or more points in six straight games, one off Willie Naulls’ franchise record, and has climbed to third in the league with 25.7 per game.
Combined with fellow newcomer Raymond Felton, they have Mike D’Antoni’s offense running the way it used to in Phoenix, when Stoudemire and Steve Nash were the feared power forward-point guard combination on the pick-and-roll.
“We’re playing with more confidence and we’re playing offensively a lot better. That’s the biggest thing. Defensively we’ve still got to get better, still got to do some things,” D’Antoni said. “But we also have the ability to come up with either a big shot block or a steal and Amare, Raymond, they’re getting us wins and making sure they come every day to play hard.”
The Knicks hoped to pair Stoudemire with another superstar this summer, but LeBron James and Dwyane Wade decided they’d rather play together in Miami. New York eventually signed Felton, the former Charlotte guard who made the tiebreaking 3-pointer with 2.7 seconds left in a 113-110 victory over Toronto on Wednesday and has six 20-point, 10-assist games this season.
Stoudemire and Felton weren’t clicking earlier this season. But the Knicks kept saying that the hours they practiced together would eventually pay off during games.
“It’s not a miracle thing that we just started working on and we won six straight,” said center Ronny Turiaf, another newcomer who has brought a defensive presence to a team that went years without one. “No, it’s a continuation and the fact that we’re all getting along and understanding each other.”
Critics say it’s also a product of a soft schedule.
A victory at New Orleans was the only one during the 12-game stretch against a winning team. The Knicks get one more sub-.500 team when they visit Washington on Friday, but then the big names start showing up.
The Knicks host Denver on Sunday, then welcome Boston and Miami next week. Following a game in Cleveland, they return home for Oklahoma City and Chicago before a trip to Florida to face the Heat and Orlando.
D’Antoni is aware of the doubters, joking Wednesday that he doesn’t have an athletic director to schedule him easy games. But he’s looking forward to seeing how his team does against the elite clubs.
“There will be time to measure ourselves one way or the other,” he said. “If it’s good, great. If it’s bad, then we’ll just work a little harder.”
Like Stoudemire, D’Antoni came from Phoenix accustomed to winning. Two years of slashing payroll so the team could afford two maximum salary players in free agency left him no chance to do so for most of his time in New York.
He likes the way things look now — and sound. Stoudemire was showered with “MVP! MVP!” chants late in Wednesday’s victory, and the only time anyone heard those at Madison Square Garden over the last couple of years was when James or Kobe Bryant was in town.
“It’s fun to play in New York and be successful, as it isn’t very much fun when you’re not successful,” D’Antoni said. “We’ll enjoy this, but we’re not going to be complacent and we’re going to keep working.”