Wednesday, April 10, 2013 Updated: April 11, 10:56 PM ET
Melo imposes his will on Knicks, NBA
By Johnette Howard ESPNNewYork.com
Carmelo Anthony didn't make the storyline about himself Tuesday after the Knicks extended their winning streak to 13 games and ended Boston's six-year run atop the Atlantic Division. But he could've. It was the sort of moment that deserves a little pause, and demands a little recap of what's happened since he forced his way out of Denver to the Knicks. Just look at the rarefied places he and the team have been in the past seven days alone.
On Sunday, Anthony overtook Kevin Durant for the NBA scoring title lead after averaging 41.8 points in four games and leading the shorthanded Knicks to a win over the Thunder in Oklahoma City. Then he kept up his scoring tear as the Knicks clinched their first division title since 1994 on Tuesday -- the same day he passed LeBron James to take over the No. 1 spot in NBA game jersey sales, one of those little benchmarks that doesn't signify much beyond how regard for Anthony and his game is undergoing a change.
An Atlantic Division title. The NBA's top-selling jersey. The best scoring average in the league. These are heady times for Carmelo Anthony.
Durant and James are already seen as winners, and that's the last piece Anthony is starting to add to his image.
Now, instead of being seen as a coach-killer -- something Anthony was accused of when Mike D'Antoni quit in midseason a year ago -- the streak Anthony and the Knicks are on has put Mike Woodson right back into the Coach of the Year conversation. And the Knicks are again rated a chance of troubling Miami in the postseason.
None of that was a given as recently as two or three weeks ago.
So don't brush off the Knicks' first division title in 19 years as breezily as some of the Knicks themselves did after trouncing the Washington Wizards by 21 points on Tuesday. Anthony could've said days like this were what he was thinking about when he leveraged his pending free agency to get himself to New York. It's still a big thing that winning is actually starting to happen here. He's been to the conference finals only once in his career; the Knicks have won only one stinking playoff game since 2001. If Anthony hadn't won a title in college, he'd have little respect as being a winner at all.
Here's the other thing worth emphasizing: The re-imagining that Anthony is undergoing now would have never occurred if Anthony himself -- like LeBron before him -- didn't do concrete things to make people appreciate him differently.
The Knicks' ability to take off on the streak they're now on coincided exactly with Anthony's game taking off. They were trying to shake off two months of .500 basketball and a 1-4 West Coast trip that was embedded in a worrisome March schedule of 19 games in 31 days. There was talk the Pacers or Nets might pass them. They were dealing with a rash of frontcourt injuries that left even Anthony admitting after they clinched Tuesday night that, sure, for a while there was some spiking "doubt."
But the way Anthony took over Tuesday against Washington was the same as he'd done most of the past few weeks. He scored 21 of his 36 points in the third quarter, and it wasn't just one of those things that happen in the flow. It was a conscious decision. After the game, he told reporters it was important to him to make a statement right there, right then: "Coming out of halftime, we huddled and I said, 'Let's go get this game over with. Let's go get our division title [at home]. Let's not play around with it.'"
Anthony's timing was as significant as the points. Anthony's insistence on asserting his will to win the game is one of those things superstars do when superstars are playing the game the right way. Rather than, you know, just piling up points for the hell of it so they can inoculate themselves from blame.
To the other Knicks, it had to feel a little awe-inspiring, even emboldening, to watch Anthony call his shot and then pull it off. It makes them believe they can beat anybody anywhere, anytime.
Anthony still inspires a love/hate reaction in a lot of people who will never be satisfied that he can't do all the things LeBron does. But the best retort to that is, "Who can?" Lapsing into, "Yeah, but " negates what Anthony has done. And how Woodson has gotten him to change. Some.
The other day, TNT analyst Kenny Smith, who was a point guard on two NBA championship teams, said the biggest difference he sees in Anthony's game now is Anthony decides what he's going to do in four seconds rather than holding the ball for seven or eight. The entire Knicks offense is better and crisper and more engaged as a result. And that's important, too.
Because another question that shadowed Anthony like the coach-killer rap was whether he would truly make room for teammates such as J.R. Smith or Amar'e Stoudemire to share the glory. Especially after the way he and D'Antoni butted heads over their radically different devotion to the idea of Jeremy Lin. Lin -- nobody's dummy -- quit the Knicks before they quit him and went to Houston.
LeBron will always be the Goliath the Knicks must drop. But you could actually argue that, in a way, having LeBron right here in the same conference is a good and focusing thing for Anthony, rather than just the sort of impossible hurdle Michael Jordan for so long was for Ewing and the Knicks. James gives Anthony a blueprint to steal and apply to his own dreams. It shows what can happen when someone with a lot of talent -- like him or James or Durant -- channels it the right way, with the right emphases.
Anthony scored out of his mind in Denver, too. But now he's imposing his will on the entire Knicks franchise.
For now, any legit recap must note he has now gone to the mat to get himself traded to New York, to play for the head coach he wanted, with teammates he wanted around him. So give him -- not just Woodson -- his due: Anthony has been right about a lot of things he pushed for.
The complication beyond LeBron is, as Woodson keeps pointing out, this Knicks club is so old, it's a win-now team.
The other day, Knicks sub Steve Novak said he thinks one of the reasons the Knicks were able to survive March and stay on track for the division title was something that's often dismissed in pro sports. "This team really, genuinely likes each other," Novak stressed several times during a postgame talk by his locker. "I think that's why we were able to stick together, even when we played such bad basketball on our West Coast trip. There have been a lot of times this season when we bent, but we didn't break."
The re-imagining of Anthony will always be seen as a work in progress until he wins a title. But he's crossing out questions as he goes. And given where the Knicks had been before he arrived, a division title and talk of how he's evolving isn't a bad start 'til the rest comes along.