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Thursday, December 13, 2012
Past, present collide for Melo

By Ian Begley
ESPNNewYork.com

About an hour after the New York Knicks' victory over Denver on Sunday night, Carmelo Anthony is standing in the locker room, chatting with reporters.

He's talking about the laceration on his left middle finger, the 11-point fourth quarter that put his ex-team away and the MVP chants he heard from the adoring Garden crowd.

All good things.

But Anthony's mood changes slightly when someone asks about the difference between Sunday night and the last time the Nuggets came to the Garden.

Mike D'Antoni and Carmelo Anthony
Were Mike D'Antoni and Carmelo Anthony on the same page last season? It didn't appear so.

That night, in late January, Anthony was battling wrist and ankle injuries and mired in a frustrating shooting slump. He missed 20 of 30 attempts from the field and the Knicks lost in double overtime to fall to 6-10.

"I think last year was, for me, man ... I really don't like to talk about last year," he says.

Last year, though, is going to be front and center over the next five days at Madison Square Garden.

Mike D'Antoni's Los Angeles Lakers visit the Garden on Thursday, and Jeremy Lin and the Houston Rockets come to town Monday.

D'Antoni, of course, is the Knicks' former coach. Lin is the team's former point guard. So for Anthony, you might as well call this stretch the Battle of the Exes.

He and D'Antoni reportedly clashed before the coach resigned in March. And Anthony and Lin -- who left in July as a free agent -- just didn't mesh well.

After Lin led the Knicks to seven straight wins in February and became an international phenomenon in the process -- all while Anthony was on the bench -- the team went into a tailspin. New York went 2-8 in 10 games following Anthony's return from a groin injury.

Lakers assistant coach Dan D'Antoni, Mike's older brother, was on the Knicks' coaching staff last season. "We just felt like when our stars [Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire] came back, it would continue," Dan D'Antoni said of the Knicks' success under Linsanity. "And it just didn't happen."

Two days after the Knicks' March 12 loss in Chicago, D'Antoni abruptly resigned after the morning shootaround. Mike Woodson coached for the rest of the season, signed a multiyear contract in May and has guided the first-place Knicks to a 16-5 start this season.

As ugly as the divorce was, Dan D'Antoni still believes things could have ultimately worked out for his brother, Anthony and the rest of the Knicks. He said recently that it would have been only a matter of time before the Knicks started winning.

"That's what we think. We think it would have [worked]," D'Antoni said.

"But you can't discount what Woody's done," he said of Woodson. "Woody's done a great job."

D'Antoni watches the Knicks on nights like their 20-point win over Miami last Thursday and is reminded of what they looked like last February under Lin.

"If everybody would have bought in, it would have been just like that. We think we would get you there," D'Antoni said in a phone interview last Friday, the day after the Knicks beat the Heat. "However, it didn't work out that way, and Woody's done a great job in getting them there."

With the Knicks off to a strong start with Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd at the point, it's easy to forget how swept up New York was in Linsanity last February.

The Knicks were seven games under .500 when Lin emerged off the end of the Knicks' bench to catapult the team to a seven-game winning streak and save the season.

Jerome Jordan, a reserve center on the 2011-12 Knicks, got to know Lin shortly before the rest of the world did. Jordan and Lin were both at the end of the Knicks' bench and both played for the franchise's D-League team in Erie, Pa., in mid-January.

"I knew if he'd gotten the opportunity he'd be good," Jordan said last week, "but I'd be lying if I told you I knew he'd be that good."

Peter Diepenbrock, Lin's high school coach, likely echoed the opinion of many when he said, "It was a combination of so many things being in the exact right place. But given his situation as an undrafted player, it also said so much about Jeremy."

Jordan remembers Linsanity in its infancy. He had a front-row seat, watching veteran guards key up for games against Lin.

"[Players] came at him because he was relatively new to the NBA, and [they] tried to say he didn't put in as much work as the other guys," Jordan said. "You could tell from just watching that guys took it personally after a couple games when they saw what he was doing."

For Dan D'Antoni and his brother, Lin's emergence validated the offensive system they brought with them from Phoenix. The same system that wasn't working with Anthony and Stoudemire.

"It confirmed what we thought we were teaching would work," D'Antoni said. "It confirmed what we believed."

Once Stoudemire and Anthony returned, D'Antoni continued to rely on Lin, creating a mash-up of offensive approaches that didn't work well. The D'Antoni system is predicated on ball movement and spacing, whereas Anthony -- who is a more willing passer this season -- thrives more in isolation.

Dan D'Antoni, never mentioning Anthony by name, didn't think that there was enough trust between the players and the coaching staff to get the offense to work.

"It's on the coaches ... [but] it's also on the players to allow the coaches to coach and trust what they're given," D'Antoni said.

He added, "I just don't think we'd been around long enough to get that [trust]."