The Ever-Growing Legend of Stevie Knicks

When he merely rises from the bench and pulls off his warmup shirt, The Garden crowd begins to stir. When he simply catches the ball, the people urge him to shoot.

When it goes in, it is like a religious experience.

So the eight from downtown that he drained (on 10 attempts) against the Celtics in a 118-110 winon Tuesday night — including a pair of clutch bombs that served as daggers late in the game as Boston was making a push — had The Garden delirious on a night the Knicks hit 19 three-pointers.

“He is the best three-point shooter in our league, it’s not even close,” said J.R. Smith, who, himself, had seven and also seems to always know where Steve Novak is on the floor. “People are starting to catch on to it, but not fast enough.”

Smith is right. The NBA is now well-aware of the sharp-shooting prowess (and the “Discount Triple-Check” celebration) of a player that was starting to fade from existence five seasons into his career. Novak’s emergence as one of the league’s most dangerous shooters — he currently leads the league in three-point shooting percentage (47.2 percent) — has put him high on advance scouting reports.

The next step for him to make as he attempts to establish this season not as a fluke, but a breakthrough is the ability to run off screens and like the game’s top snipers do. Mike Woodsonhas inserted a few plays for Novak and we saw a few run very effectively against the Celtics.

“He had a lot of great looks and he knocked them down,” Woodson said. “As we continue to flow and go along, those shots will become tougher because teams, they watch tape and they’re not going to leave. So we’ve got to find ways to get him some looks.”

The Heat, for one, stayed glued to Novak throughout Sunday’s game and he struggled to get free. The Bulls did the same. Considering that these are the two most likely potential first round opponents for the Knicks, Woodson definitely has to create movement to help free up Novak.

And while his three-ball is what has everyone smitten, Novak is working hard to dispel the cynicism about other areas of his game, including defense. Coincidentally, Woodson is admittedly not a big fan of the three-pointer, but with a weapon like Novak, how could he not utilize him. But Novak can’t stay on the court, especially in critical moments, if he is a liability on defense.

It’s obvious teams will attack him on offense, so, to his credit (and Woodson’s demand) he has put more focus on preparation on that end of the floor. And despite physical mismatches — he was caught one-on-one with LeBron James and Paul Pierce several times in the last two games — he has been determined to compete. Against Boston, Novak banged in the low post with the powerful Brandon Bass and came out of it no worse for the wear.

But there’s no question this one-dimensional player has a hell of a dimension: Shooting. And he has a chance to leave his mark in the Knicks annals with the greatest three-point shooting season in franchise history. Hubert Davis currently holds the all-time highest three-point shooting percentage for a season with 47.6 percent in 1995-96. Novak is right on his tail with five games to go.

He also has a chance to be the first Knick since Campy Russell in 1981-82 to lead the NBA in three-point shooting percentage.

As for threes made, he’s far off the franchise season mark, but considering the compressed schedule and his late arrival to the rotation, he’s not that far. Novak has 117 three-pointers made in 49 games, which is 2.4 per game and 100 shy of the franchise record for a season. John Starks had 217 in 80 games (2.7 per game) in the 1994-95 season. Consider that Starks played 34.1 minutes per game that season, while Novak has played a little more than half of that: 18.2 minutes per game this season.

OK, so now that we agree that Novak is a keeper, how do the Knicks keep him?

Novak was picked up on waivers from the San Antonio Spurs in December, who had signed him to a pair of 10-day contracts before he was locked up for the rest of the season in 2010-11 and, as a result, given a second year for 2011-12.

The Knicks don’t have any Bird Rights on Novak, so he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. They will be over the NBA salary cap, so the only way to re-sign Novak — with the understanding that his market value will no longer be as a veteran’s minimum player — is to dip into their two resources: The mid-level exception ($5 million) and, as long as the Knicks are below the luxury tax threshold, the bi-annual exception ($1.9 million).

Now, the Knicks will probably need most of their MLE to re-sign Jeremy Lin, but how much of it depends on what the market demands for the restricted free agent (the Knicks have the right to match). But there is certain to be some competition for Novak from contending teams, as well.

Novak has found a home at The Garden this season. Whether he keeps it a home — remember, Shawne Williams took the money and ran, too (and who could blame him?) — remains to be seen.

The team’s core of Carmelo AnthonyAmar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler are locked up for at least another three years. Lin and Iman Shumpert are also expected to be around for a while. What the Knicks have to do is be creative to build, and maintain, a strong bench. Novak is a big part of that mission.

AMAR’E LOOKS CLOSE (AND DIFFERENT)

As he hit The Garden floor for his rigorous pregame workout routine, Amar’e Stoudemire pulled back his hoodie just a bit and grinned. Along with a clean-shaven jaw and a well-cropped goatee, Stoudemire had his hair in neat cornrows.

It was a throwback look to that of a 16-year-old Stoudemire we saw in a clever time machine ad by the NBA last season.

The Knicks would love to put Amar’e in a time machine, perhaps to December of 2010, when he was arguably the most dominant player in the NBA in a month that saw him break a franchise record with nine straight 30-plus point performances.

This time around, it’s now Carmelo who is having a big month and as Stoudemire is poised to return to the lineup (perhaps as soon as Friday in Cleveland?), the talk is less about how Stoudemire will bolster the lineup and more that his presence could mess up Melo’s game.

The two have managed to co-exist with mild success on the court, but more often than not the two have not equally thrived at the same time. Mike D’Antoni struggled to find the answer and now it’s Mike Woodson’s task as the playoffs near.

“I’ve got to see if this is going to work,” Woodson said. “I got to make it work.”

The fact of the matter is Stoudemire should not step into the lineup and disrupt the offense because he will be looking to get his body into game condition. The best mentality he can take into the game is to keep it as simple as possible and stick to fundamentals: Run hard, box out, rebound and defend. Stoudemire, for now, should have the focus of a role player and, like everyone else, play off Melo.

Then as he gets more and more comfortable, and the injured back appears stable, the Knicks can start working him back in as a go-to option in the offense.

FIXINS

• What, you thought I’d lead with Melo’s triple-double? Hey, you never read it in this space that he was dominating the offense too much. Melo is probably feeling as good as he has since training camp began in December and he has really found his game under Woodson. He also doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his basketball IQ, which is something Mike D’Antoni used to tell me regularly.

The truth is, Melo sees the floor better than most think. He is mostly a willing passer, but he can be stubborn. When his mind is right, as it is now, he has tremendous court awareness. The Celtics, as Doc Rivers said, paid almost too much attention to him, which freed up the shooters around Melo and he found them. And when Boston defended him one-on-one, he recognized that and scored seemingly at will against whatever physical defenders (he seemed to enjoy the pounding from Sasha Pavlovic and Brandon Bass) they threw at him.

Hey, there’s nothing new to Melo finding open shooters. He’s been doing it throughout the season. But look back and consider how many wide-open shots the Knicks have missed this season? Would you keep passing to a guy in the corner who has bricked four straight?

“We just made shots tonight,” he correctly noted. “Guys were open the way [the Celtics] were guarding me tonight.”

For Woodson, the plan should be to find a way to set up Stoudemire as another outlet for Melo to find when double-teams come.

• Jared Jeffries played just 5:39 off the bench which shouldn’t be a surprise considering he’s playing through serious pain in his right knee, which will almost certainly need surgery in the offseason. In fact, Jeffries, who is wearing a brace to protect the knee, may be told to shut it down again once Amar’e returns to the lineup.

The season is almost over, but the Knicks are still keeping an eye out for potential big man help for the playoffs, be it via the D-League or elsewhere. A free agent is playoff eligible only if he appears in one regular season game, so Knicks would have to have the player in uniform (and on the court) by the season finale on April 26.

• Baron Davis had a stomach flu in the morning and needed an IV to help him feel good enough to play against the Celtics. Then, he said, in the third quarter he tweaked his balky hamstring. With Jeremy Lin out of the lineup, Davis knows the Knicks desperately need him and therefore he is playing most nights when, in any other situation, he’d be sitting out. With Davis (18:24, scoreless, 1 assists, 2 rebounds, 2 turnovers) at barely a half-tank, the backup point guard situation is precarious, but credit veteran Mike Bibby for coming through against Boston. Bibby played 26:27 and though he recorded just three points, he posted six assists with no turnovers and five rebounds.

• After consecutive games on the exclusive national schedule, we return with the MSG Networkbroadcast Wednesday night (Knicks Game Night starts at 7 p.m.) when the Knicks play their final game in the state of New Jersey. Despite finding a usually very Knicks-friendly crowd when they cross the Hudson, the Knicks in regular season play are 31-48 all-time against the Nets in Jersey since the franchise moved there in 1977. The Nets played their first NBA season at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, where the Knicks were 2-0 in 1976-77 (yes, when the Nets are in Brooklyn next season, it won’t be the first time the Knicks play the Nets as a New York-based team).

The Knicks have played the Nets in three different sites since the team moved to New Jersey in ’77. The first four seasons were at the Rutgers Athletic Center, followed by 21 years at the Meadowlands Arena and then last season (and this one) at the Prudential Center in Newark.

For anyone keeping score, the Knicks are 84-82 in all-time regular season meetings against their rivals since the NBA-ABA merger.