Wednesday, February 22, 2012 Updated: February 24, 1:45 AM ET
Melo must 'buy in' on Linsanity Knicks
By Johnette Howard ESPNNewYork.com
NEW YORK -- It's going to be hard to get used to hearing it -- let alone trusting it. But it was still a good sign for the Knicks to hear head coach Mike D'Antoni, of all people, talking on and on before the Knicks trounced the injury-depleted Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday about how defense -- not offense -- will decide how high the Knicks rise or fall this season long after the ginned-up "Will he or won't he?" soap opera around Carmelo Anthony starts to fade.
The Knicks' first showdown against conference rival Miami since Jeremy Lin became an overnight sensation lay just ahead Thursday night. And for once Wednesday, it wasn't whether Amare Stoudemire and Lin can mesh with Anthony, or how D'Antoni will juggle a talented rotation that he swears he's willing to expand to 10, even 12 guys, that D'Antoni and Anthony were dwelling on before or after the Knicks breezed past the Hawks 99-82 at the Garden.
D'Antoni was talking about defense, people. That's right. De-fense.
And, more generally, about getting the sort of all-encompassing "buy in" that can (1) take advantage of the Knicks' deep roster in this lockout-compressed season, and (2) keep the Knicks in the top 10 in the NBA defensive rankings, a perch they shot up to when Anthony and Stoudemire were out for long stretches and the Knicks went 8-1 anyway.
That's the vision for how D'Antoni's latest new-look team can work even with Anthony, whom D'Antoni pulled aside for a you-gotta-be-you talk before the game that Anthony said he appreciated.
As slogans go, it has a nice ring to it -- "Buy In." It sounds a lot like the "All In" battle cry the late-meshing Giants rode all the way to the Super Bowl title.
And for now, anyway, Anthony keeps swearing he's all in, bought in, or whatever D'Antoni wants to call it.
"We played good two-way basketball tonight," Anthony said at one point Wednesday night. Reminded that he had only 15 points, Stoudemire had only seven, and the Knicks still beat Atlanta by 17, Anthony said, "I don't care about [scoring], and I know neither does Amare."
We'll see whether that's still true three weeks from now, or after the Knicks go through their first nasty slump with their roster intact.
Because while the "Buy In" talk is an easy vision to lay out, it's a harder one to sell to players -- especially stars who may prefer their playing time or roles not to change night to night.
But the idea is sound. Instead of looking at the Knicks' depth as a problem -- how is everyone going to get enough minutes, shots or touches?! -- D'Antoni and his staff are trying to sell the Knicks on the idea that less really can be more. The idea is if everyone is playing fewer minutes, there's no reason every player can't pour every bit of energy into defense as well as offense for the minutes they're on the court, and if they're really bought into playing team basketball, there's no reason to go home unhappy on the nights they don't fill up the box score but the Knicks still win. Everyone has to believe in the idea that giving up a little individually will lead to a lot more wins.
"If we can get guys to buy in to that," D'Antoni said before the game, using the phrase for the 10th time if he used it once, "then we can be pretty good."
There's no way a second-year kid like Jeremy Lin can lead the Knicks as far as Carmelo Anthony can.
Anthony, more than anyone else, is seen as the likely holdout.
But if Anthony really wants to lead a Knicks renaissance as badly as he dolefully insisted he did after they lost to the Nets in his first game back from a groin injury Monday night, he can begin by dropping Monday's lament that "I can't win" the perception battle.
And he can start by thinking, talking and playing more of an all-around game like Paul Pierce did when Boston put together its Big Three, or LeBron James has since he hit the league and then moved on down the road to play for the Heat. He can keep looking to pass like he did last night but help out on the boards more and quit hanging back by the 3-point line sometimes when the opposing team is taking the ball the other way.
Pierce did it, and he wound up with a ring and the distinction of being the leading scorer in Celtics history, ahead of Larry Bird.
Anthony isn't the athlete James is. Right now, it's hard to picture Anthony ever standing at practice and volunteering to take the opposing team's hottest player, like James did Wednesday as he looked ahead to the Knicks' visit and told reporters in Miami, "I know I'm going to end up guarding Lin at some point [Thursday night]."
But Anthony can do better. He can buy into D'Antoni's belief that with NBA rules the way they are today, nobody stops anyone one-on-one anymore "because you can't you have to play team defense."
That's not too much to ask of Anthony, either.
If Anthony cares at all about his legacy here, he should buy in as he promises he has because, let's face it, while Stoudemire long ago proved he could flourish in D'Antoni's system, and Lin is on the way to proving it now too, the biggest number that blinked off the page when Anthony passed the one-year anniversary of his trade to the Knicks on Wednesday was this one: They're just 31-31 since he came here.
But give Anthony this: So far he really has been unselfish and uncomplaining about not dominating the ball for the "Linsanity" Knicks. That said, he's good enough to do even more.
When veteran point guard Chauncey Billups was still a Knick, he used to say something about Anthony all the time that applies to the many debates swirling around Anthony now. Billups often used to preface his remarks about Anthony's game by saying, "When he wants to be " As in, "When he wants to be, he can be one of the top three or four players in the league."
Anthony still can't claim to be at that league MVP level yet.
Now that he's orchestrated a trade to the Knicks, it's going to take even more "Buy In" from him to make them the sort of contender that makes Miami and Chicago hear footsteps in the East. Because for his next trick, there's no way a second-year kid like Lin can lead the Knicks as far as Anthony can. It has to be him.