New Year, New Faces, Old Knicks Problems

Tuesday's 105-100 loss to Portland followed a familiar script

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    Stoudemire returned, but the defense did not.

    Amar'e Stoudemire was in the lineup for the first time all year and Carmelo Anthony returned from two games on the sideline with a hyperextended knee, but the Knicks' first game of 2013 looked a lot like their last game of 2012. 

    The Knicks fell way behind in the first half forcing them to battle back throughout the second half, something they were able to do just well enough to wind up with another close loss. The Blazers didn't need the Kings' buzzer beater on a chaotic final play to beat the Knicks, but the 105-100 loss followed a familiar path nonetheless. 

    If not for Anthony and J.R. Smith, things would never have gotten that close. Anthony scored 45 points and Smith added 28, including an offensive rebound follow in the fourth quarter that qualified as Tuesday night's moment when you wonder if Smith isn't actually the most talented player in the entire league.  

    Because it was Stoudemire's first game back and because he predictably looked rustier than that abandoned car in a vacant lot where you and your friends went to smoke cigarettes in high school, it's no surprise to see some tabloid rabble-rousing about how bringing Stoudemire back to the team is going to undo everything that came before. It's possible, but it's almost impossible to understand how you watched Tuesday night's game and came away with Stoudemire being the problem with this team. 

    The Knicks fell behind by those 19 points in the first half thanks to defense that can best be described as a mixture between apathy, carelessness and schematic blunders. Time after time, Knicks guards failed to fight through screens which leads to switching on defense and an open paint for the Blazers forwards to use for easy buckets. 

    Or they were being beaten backdoor, allowing second chances on the offensive glass or failing to close out on shooters from beyond the arc, leading to more open shots and an easy night offensively for Portland until the Knicks finally made some headway in the second half. Two late Blazer baskets in the same fashion -- a putback by LaMarcus Aldridge and an open three by Damien Lillard -- were enough to stave off the Knick rally.

    We've been seeing pretty much the same thing from the Knicks just about every night for the last few weeks and it is something that Mike Woodson has to iron out because everyone is going to keep attacking the Knicks exactly the same way until they show they can actually come up with stops. The defense that spurred the season-opening winning streak is nowhere to be seen and it's continued absence will sink this team as quickly as that iceberg sank the Titanic. 

    It's not quite as juicy a story as one about Stoudemire and Anthony being unable to coexist, but it's a lot more likely to determine the fate of this Knicks team. There are times when basketball is a simple game, never moreso than when it comes to not being able to win if you aren't able to stop the other team from scoring. 

    Josh Alper is also a writer for Pro Football Talk. You can follow him on Twitter.