Thursday, April 18, 2013
For Melo, Knicks, it's now or never
By Johnette Howard
The long, tortured, oft-cited but allegedly misunderstood playoff history of Carmelo Anthony has a new twist this season. He's gone and done it now. He's robbed his most ardent supporters of the biggest stick they've always used to beat back the criticism that Anthony isn't a winning player. His team is supposed to win, for a change. And if he thought there was hell to pay before, just wait.
Anthony clinched his first NBA scoring title Wednesday. The New York Knicks won their first Atlantic Division title since 1994. They are the second seed in the East. They closed the season with a stretch that included 15 wins in 16 games thanks to their novel policy of adding players who haven't been playing for months or even years (Kenyon Martin? Make way for Quentin Richardson!) when their other novel approach of amassing the league's biggest collection of old players actually worked.
Or at least it worked well enough to win 54 games and put Anthony in the now-or-never predicament he finds himself in. This team may have to be rebuilt around the edges next season too.
The Knicks have to beat the Boston Celtics in their first-round playoff series that starts Saturday at the Garden, and then whomever they would meet in the second round, to say this season was an unqualified success. Or else Anthony, more than anyone, will find himself rotating on a spit. Again. For everything he's not or never done. Nobody wants to hear these kinds of blow-by-blow defenses anymore.
Next to Stephon Marbury, it's hard to remember a recent NBA player who has been spanked for his lack of playoff success the way Anthony has. He is endlessly reminded that he has been to the playoffs nine times before and gotten past the first round once. A few weeks ago, Forbes magazine named him the NBA's Most Overpaid Player, using a formula similar to the Wins Above Replacement stat that's popular now in baseball. Earlier this week, another stat floated out showing he remains the Losingest Man in NBA Playoff History (for the last 20 years, anyway), with a 17-37 career record. None of the other members of the top 10 is anything approaching an All-Star player.
Yet when asked Sunday -- after the Knicks clinched home-court advantage 'til the Eastern Conference finals -- if he feels any pressure, Anthony insisted, "No."
We'll see if he plays that way.
The Knicks have won one playoff game in 11 seasons. Boston is playing for a cause now, after the bombings Monday at the Boston Marathon. The Knicks are 1-11 in their last 12 games there. If the Knicks flop, Anthony is likely to be treated even more harshly than he was two seasons ago when the Knicks were swept by the Celts. Anthony piled up terrific stats in those first two games but missed a last-second shot at the end of Game 1 and decided to pass to a wide-open Jared Jeffries at the end of Game 2 with the Knicks trailing by one -- and Jeffries balked at taking a layup and turned the ball over.
The collision of pro- and anti-Melo arguments afterward was typically overheated even though Anthony had 42 points, 17 rebounds and 6 assists. He's not a winner. How could he pass up that last shot and trust Jeffries? He made the right basketball play out of a triple-team, and he gets ripped for that too?
It didn't help that the Celts rubbed it in. "It was interesting, because we had to wonder: When we went at him, was he going to give the ball up?" Ray Allen told Yahoo! Sports after the game.
"The way he was scoring, you'd figure he would've shot the ball there," Paul Pierce added.
The backbiting will never stop until Anthony takes a team deep into the playoffs.
These Knicks have accomplished a lot this season. Mike Woodson's ability to keep the team together through its many injuries has been remarkable. But they're still chased by questions. They're still banged up. They rely a lot on 3-point shooting, which isn't supposed to be as sustainable come playoff time. The Bulls' ability to go 4-0 against them this season has led to whispers that Tom Thibodeau -- an ex-Celts assistant after he worked for the Knicks -- has given the rest of the league a blueprint to beat the Knicks. It basically boils down to defending the 3-point line and letting Anthony shoot his fool head off if he likes. Make the rest of the Knicks beat you.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers, Thibodeau's former boss, has said he'll rotate three or four defenders on Anthony because he's so good at getting opponents into foul trouble. Don't be surprised if he's banged around a lot, just to see if he loses his temper like he did against Kevin Garnett on Jan. 7 at the Garden.
Anthony and the Knicks have to get to the conference finals for this season to seem fulfilling.
He is a long way from when he looked at how he had orchestrated his way out of Denver to the Knicks and said during the 2011 All-Star weekend, "I take off my cap to myself."
Anthony's teams have won four division titles in his 10 seasons. They have lost to the eventual NBA champs in the postseason four times. He is riding high in New York with three ex-Nuggets -- J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby -- who were broken up as a team because they hadn't gotten enough done and their contracts were coming up. Now they're reunited and a lot older.
But better? Able to help Anthony finally buck some nagging history? We'll see.