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Monday, January 21, 2013
Updated: January 22, 10:21 AM ET
In clutch, Anthony's aim must be truer

By Ian O'Connor
ESPNNewYork.com

Carmelo Anthony was playing a beautiful floor game, a Scottie Pippen kind of game, and it was fun to watch such a relentless scorer leave the Garden crowd with this singular thought:

I didn't know he could do that.

Melo was making all sorts of smart passes, some while looking directly at his target and some while throwing a deceptive glance elsewhere, and better yet, a number of them found the hands of Amar'e Stoudemire for an uncontested two. So Anthony wasn't just showing off a skill often cloaked by his volume shooting; he was mocking the doubts about his ability to coexist with Stoudemire, too.

Anthony-Johnson
Carmelo Anthony didn't make the big basket on MLK Day. Joe Johnson did.

But in the end Monday, after the New York Knicks had lost their fourth and final meeting with the Brooklyn Nets by an 88-85 count, Anthony couldn't find any solace in his season-high seven assists, or in the dishes that could've put him in double figures if they weren't mishandled. His Pippen-like passes as a modified point forward weren't good enough in this matinee, not when his job description also asks him to make Michael Jordan-like shots in the endgame.

It isn't fair, but that's the burden of greatness, the fine print in any franchise player's deal. Anthony had done everything Mike Woodson asked of him even before he assumed the role of Raymond Felton, a role Jason Kidd is too old to handle.

That doesn't change his main responsibility. When the Knicks need a big shot in a big game, Anthony is supposed to take and make it. Contenders cannot live on J.R. Smith heaves alone.

Anthony had that shot with 11.9 seconds left, Nets up a point, an open 10-footer on the baseline that everyone in the five boroughs thought was going down. It didn't matter that Melo had missed his five previous fourth-quarter attempts from the field, or that he was nearing the end of an 11-for-29 performance.

Melo might be the most unstoppable scorer this franchise has dressed. When he took the superstar's liberty of pushing off Gerald Wallace, of creating the necessary space for the clear look, the Knicks looked ready to take the season series from the Nets.

"Two and two against them stinks," Smith would say of a split series. "Just like kissing your sister."

Even though the conscience-free Smith has established a willingness and ability to make a game-winner, there was no doubt in the Garden that the Knicks had the ball in the right hands.

"Whenever Melo shoots," J.R. said, "I think that's the shot we want. ... As long as we get the ball in Melo's hands, that's when we're most confident."

Joe Johnson had already drained the shots the Nets needed, beating Smith off the dribble for a pull-up jumper that gave his team a lead it wouldn't relinquish. His former coach in Atlanta, Woodson, was upset about his defense on that possession, upset that an unnecessary rotation toward Brook Lopez (ably guarded by Tyson Chandler, reigning Defensive Player of the Year) allowed the Nets to swing the ball to Johnson, who'd initially been covered by Iman Shumpert, a much better defender than Smith.

Whatever. Johnson sank the 16-footer he was hired to sink, and now it was Anthony's turn to match him in what coaches love to call a make-or-miss league. Only Melo rose up above the helpless Wallace, eyed the inviting basket, and shot the ball clear over the rim for an airball that sucked the air out of the Knicks.

"I thought he had a great look," Jason Kidd said. "I thought he was going to make it because he loves that situation. But sometimes you don't make them all, and it was unfortunate because we really thought he was going to make it."

Nobody thought Melo was going to make it more than Melo himself. He's had an MVP-worthy first half, and his streak of 26 consecutive games of at least 20 points is the longest of his career. Kidd and Chandler have said Anthony is playing with the same hunger and fire they saw a couple of years back in Dirk Nowitzki, who finally won the liberating championship ring Melo now craves.

But this didn't turn out to be a day that would advance the cause. "I missed it," Anthony said of his pull-up. "I didn't execute. I didn't make shots down the stretch, shots I know I can make, I normally make."

Anthony played 45 minutes, many of them while managing a newfangled responsibility that weighed down his legs more than the flight back from London did. He said the fatigue from running the point "could've been" a factor in his wayward aim, but maintained he wasn't about to embrace the cop-out.

"I should've made those shots," Anthony said. "I really don't know what to say about that."

There was nothing more to say. The Nets threw different bodies and different looks at Anthony, asking Wallace and Johnson and Reggie Evans to bump him off his game, and Melo responded with a selfless, team-centric approach. He played winning basketball, he really did, controlling a Knicks offense that committed a mere five turnovers.

Who would ever believe that Melo could finish a game with a half dozen more assists than Kidd, one of the greatest passers of all time? But Anthony staged a clinic in drawing traffic and finding the open big man, in this case Stoudemire.

"Common sense basketball," the scorer called it. "He's open, give him the ball, he finishes."

Just like that. Only Anthony was asked to do more in the final seconds, if only because franchise players are always asked to do more. The 29 points weren't enough on a day when the Knicks needed him to get to 31 or more.

If the Knicks are to win their first title in 40 years, Melo needs to keep his teammates involved, and he needs to be their most reliable fourth-quarter scorer, too. It's a delicate dance, and a whole lot to ask for. But again, that's why they pay him the big bucks.

This time around the Knicks were left to hope for another Smith prayer to land at the buzzer, and the 3-point banker just missed. In the winners' locker room, Johnson, Monday's Mr. Big Shot, stood behind his earlier claim that the Nets represent New York's best team, saying he still feels that way and "that's not gonna change."

On the losing side, a bone-tired Anthony allowed that he'll be a happy man when the injured Felton returns, and for good reason. His job description makes Jordan-like shots a necessity, and Pippen-like passes a luxury.