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MIAMI -- Chauncey Billups was the small-picture protagonist in the most important victory for the New York Knicks in 10 years, mocking the notion that he was some beaten-down buggy hitched to Carmelo Anthony's supersonic ride.
Billups remains the same proud championship quarterback he's always been, so he hardly surprised himself when he made the endgame steals and runner and 3-pointer that the world's most gifted player, LeBron James, could not make.
But the most significant big-picture development in Knicks 91, Miami Heat 86, was the defense Anthony and Amare Stoudemire played on James in the final, frantic seconds, when LeBron dribbled left and darted into the lane for what he believed would be the winning basket and a rejection of the Knicks' master plan to unseat the uncrowned Heat.
The first seed in this seminal moment was planted in the middle of the fourth quarter, when Anthony sidled up to teammate Bill Walker and told him they needed to trade defensive assignments, told him he wanted to cover James down the stretch.
Anthony had his reasons. He entered this game with an 8-4 head-to-head record against James, and with a long history of engaging LeBron in summertime duels on the AAU circuit. James' high school in Akron, St. Vincent-St. Mary, met Anthony's Oak Hill Academy in 2002, and Melo won that faceoff, too.
But this wasn't some high school showcase in Trenton, N.J. This was a window on the souls of two NBA teams that will fight for control of the Eastern Conference the next four or five years, or whenever the Celtics' old legs finally give out.
And Carmelo Anthony wanted it known that he wanted a piece of LeBron James.
"I didn't ask," Anthony said. "I just told Billy Walker to switch off. I told him I'll get [James] the last seven, seven and a half minutes or so. I just wanted to take that challenge, and it helped us out.
"I think the guys fed off that energy. They see me out there leading us defensively, and they followed that lead and picked up the slack."
Anthony would finish with 29 points and 9 rebounds to LeBron's 27 and 7. They each had their moments on the offensive end, none more impressive than the spin move Melo executed in the third quarter, dusting James in the paint and leading to a layup.
But even though Miami scored 34 points in the first quarter, and even though the Knicks made it a game with a 16-0 run to close out the first half, a run punctuated by Walker's absurd bank-in 3 to give his team the lead, this wasn't a night defined by scoring.
|Carmelo Anthony took it upon himself to guard LeBron James down the stretch.|
Coach Mike D'Antoni's Knicks actually won this game on stops. They allowed Miami just 52 points in the last three quarters, 35 in the second half.
"Most of defense is just effort," Billups said, "and being willing to do it."
D'Antoni's previous teams in Phoenix and New York never had the know-how or desire, but these Knicks just might be different. As Billups was stealing the ball from James and Chris Bosh in the final minutes, and following up his wild runner in the lane with a long and lethal 3 launched from the sands of South Beach, Heat president Pat Riley wore that grim, I've-seen-this-movie-before look in the stands.
Riley's Heat lost three consecutive sudden-death playoff games to the Knicks on their home floor from 1998 to 2000, and ol' Riles surely expected Allan Houston to suddenly appear and get another lucky bounce, or Clarence Weatherspoon to emerge from the scrum to take an ill-fated shot.
Instead he saw his blue-chip recruit, James, take the ball and face up Anthony with Miami down one. Riley saw LeBron make his move to the left and saw Melo move his feet laterally in a way Melo is never supposed to move his feet on the defensive side of the ball.
"I just wanted to stay in front of him," Anthony said.
So stay in front of James he did. Anthony bothered LeBron just enough, taking the steam out of his drive and allowing Stoudemire the time and opportunity to rush in from the weak side.
"It's something we'd been talking about the whole game," Anthony said.
Funny, but Stoudemire and Anthony are seen as two of the more defensively challenged stars in the league, now playing for the sport's most defensively challenged coach. Yet Stoudemire and Anthony were plotting this stand for two hours, hoping James or Dwyane Wade would fall into their trap.
"Right now, we're just a bunch of good individuals," D'Antoni had said before the game.
The Knicks would be notarized as an honest-to-god team on this sequence. James floated the ball over the extended arms of Anthony, and Stoudemire batted it out of the sky and into the hands of Shawne Williams, who made his foul shots.
James had a chance to tie the score on a 3 with 2.3 seconds left, but he rarely has been a closer in games as tense as this one. His predictable brick sealed what D'Antoni called his biggest victory as Knicks coach, a victory secured by Anthony's feet and Stoudemire's swat.
"The bigger the stage," D'Antoni said, "the bigger the game, the bigger they play."
Miami lost yet another close game despite the fact D'Antoni practically had a D-League lineup out there at the end of the first quarter, a lineup that included Renaldo Balkman, Anthony Carter, Toney Douglas and Ronny Turiaf.
In the end, Anthony scored just enough points to make it work. Anthony and Billups, who had as much fun in the closing minutes as a child would in a sandbox.
"He continues to make big shot after big shot, and that's why his nickname is '[Mr.] Big Shot,'" said James, who has a long way to go before stealing that nickname.
Only this time around, D'Antoni's defense -- of all things -- had plenty to do with LeBron's biggest miss. Anthony and Stoudemire foiled the great one when they absolutely had to, and, in case Knicks fans had forgotten what it looked like, here's what you call that play:
A championship stop.