Melo, Smith step up, Knicks' offense stalls

Carmelo Anthony tied a season-high with 45 points in his return from a hyperextended left knee. Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Carmelo Anthony returned from a hyperextended left knee after a two-game absence -- and for most of the first quarter on New Year's Day, the Knicks' offense looked basically the same as it has all season.

Melo was Melo, the NBA's best scorer in the first quarter with a 9.9 points average. On Tuesday night, he upped that to 13 points as the Knicks trailed only 25-20 with 2:46 remaining in the opening period. As usual, he started hot from beyond the arc, connecting on three 3-pointers in only a two-minute stretch midway through the first quarter. By the final buzzer, he matched his season-high with 45 points.

"I felt pretty good for the most part," Anthony said after the game. "I didn't expect to do some of the things I was able to do out there. When you're playing, the adrenaline is flowing and you're not really thinking."

The game's biggest momentum shift started when Melo was subbed out with 2:46 left in the first quarter and lasted until 8:40 to go in the second quarter. The Knicks scored only five points during that stretch. The Trail Blazers took a commanding 37-25 lead -- and never looked back. In fact, Portland never trailed in their 105-100 win at the Garden.

The only other offensive bright spot for the Knicks was J.R. Smith, who matched his season-high with 28 points, had a career-high 11 rebounds and dished out a team-high five assists. Smith, in fact, is the first Knick to score 25 or more points in four straight games coming off the bench.

"He's definitely hitting a rhythm," Tyson Chandler said afterward. "It's something we obviously need right now. When you have really those two going together, it's a tough one-two punch."

Anthony and Smith were so effective Tuesday night that only the two of them kept the Knicks in the game late in the final period. After accounting for the Knicks' final 14 points of the first half, they made up 27 of the team's final 29 points.

"From my standpoint, I was just trying to be as aggressive as I can," Smith said. "Everybody keeps telling me, 'Be aggressive. Be aggressive.' From Carmelo's standpoint, I think he was just being Melo. It was really tough for us to score, for some reason. We were stuck on 25 points for a while in that second quarter. With the weapons we have, we shouldn't be having those problems."

But the Knicks have been missing some of their key offensive weapons, which has led to some of their breakdowns during the Knicks' current 2-4 stretch. Therefore, they've had to lean more on Anthony and Smith. While Melo sat out six games the past month, Raymond Felton, Amar'e Stoudemire and Rasheed Wallace have all been injured more recently. After the game Tuesday, Chandler admitted the rotation changes have posed challenges.

"Absolutely," he said. "It's always a tough adjustment because you get in a rhythm, you get accustomed to certain things and things change. But we know we're a better team with these guys, so we've just got to find a way for us to all get in rhythm."

One of the biggest things the Knicks were accustomed to was Raymond Felton running the team, alongside Jason Kidd. While Felton's shooting progressively got worse due to his injuries, his ability to attack and get deep inside the paint boosted the Knicks' ball movement. To emphasize Felton's importance, the Knicks have a plus-4.8 plus-minus and are averaging 79.5 points per 36 minutes when he's on the court, but have a negative 1.9 plus-minus and are averaging 71.1 points when he's not.

While Smith has picked up some of the slack in pick-and-rolls, the Knicks need more facilitating from Kidd and Pablo Prigioni.

"[Prigioni] and Kidd, both I'm going to sit them down tomorrow because Raymond's out for a while," Mike Woodson said during his postgame news conference. "Both of them are going to have to start being a little bit more aggressive offensively."

As Damian Lillard proved Tuesday for the Blazers, finishing with 21 points, six assists and five rebounds -- and the game-deciding 3-pointer -- top-notch point-guard play is everything to a team. Kidd and Prigioni are going to need to deliver much more than two points and six assists combined looking ahead.

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