Melo, Smith stepping up at right time

J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony are friends off the court. They've been a spectacular team on it. Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith are close friends, longtime teammates and training partners in the offseason. So it wasn't a surprise when one of them had the other one's back Friday in Cleveland.

Smith knew Anthony needed some rest and told him, "I got you." The night before in Chicago, Melo played 45 minutes and ended up taking 34 shots and grabbing 19 rebounds just to keep the Knicks in a game without any of their big men. While he scored 36 points, he got beat up on nearly every drive to the basket by a physical Bulls team.

So what did Smith do at the Q? After Anthony scored 31 points through three quarters, the sixth man allowed him to sit the rest of the way, taking the reins on offense and finishing the game 12-for-12 from the field in the final two periods. In the end, Smith led the Knicks to the 101-91 victory, scoring the same amount of points as Melo.

"I needed [Smith] to do that," Anthony told reporters after the game. "Everybody contributed to that, but for him to have it going and keep it going the way he did in that fourth, it gave me a chance."

Based on the Knicks' last 15 games, during which they went 14-1, Anthony and Smith have been the best scoring duo in the NBA, averaging a combined 57.2 points per game. While Melo has been averaging 33.1 points on 49.4 percent shooting, Smith has been at 24.1 points on 50.4 percent shooting. Prior to that, he was averaging 16.7 points per game on the season.

Smith is now the favorite for his first-ever Sixth Man Award, and a big reason is how he's expanded his repertoire. With the Knicks' depleted frontline, both Smith and Melo know they're the best offensive threats, and they've taken their games inside more. While Melo has been averaging 9.4 rebounds per game in the last 15 games, Smith has been at 6.3, and they've both taken 105 free throws each during that span.

Both players have taken advantage of their versatile skill sets, bigger size at their positions and experience. The biggest credit to Anthony and Smith performing so well together has been their ability to play off of each other and not crowd the court.

What's raised their level of play has been their quicker thinking off the dribble. They've been initiating moves to the basket right away instead of holding the ball or dribbling it too long. Their play is almost rhythmic -- one dribble, two dribble, go -- and it's led to better efficiency. Their faster attack mode has not only put defenses on their toes, but it's also sped up the team's ball flow leading to more open shots.

They've also been healthy. While Anthony is feeling fresh since getting his right knee drained, Smith is not dealing with the sore left Achilles heel that was bothering earlier in the season.

Having their two best offensive players ready to go, and in the zone, is arguably the best thing going for the Knicks just a few days before the playoffs begin. Now it's on to curing their bigs.

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