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Friday, May 3, 2013
Anthony exorcises playoff demon

By Ian O'Connor
ESPNNewYork.com

BOSTON -- As the fourth quarter crumbled around him, Carmelo Anthony understood the consequences of failure. He understood the Boston Celtics were threatening to destroy his standing in the game, to leave him as the postseason hoax many had made him out to be.

Anthony couldn't surrender a third consecutive closeout game, not in a way that would all but guarantee a fourth consecutive defeat on Sunday. When Boston was done ripping off 20 unanswered points Friday night, done stealing the ball from Anthony to cut a 26-point deficit to four, Melo stood zero for his last 19 3-point attempts in this series, a line destined to stick with him like John Starks' 2-for-18.

Carmelo Antony, Jeff Green
Carmelo Anthony, who so often has been a playoff joke, rose to the challenge against Boston.

Yes, he was going to be the New York Knicks' answer to Alex Rodriguez, the face of an historic collapse, the franchise player who slapped at the ball in 2004 and didn't live it down until he finally won his ring in 2009, tainted as his performance ended up being.

So Melo had no choice but to win this game and this series. One hundred and three NBA teams had held a 3-0 lead in the playoffs entering this spring, and one hundred and three of them had advanced to the next round. If Anthony failed to extend that streak, he would've validated every unforgiving thing said about him from New York to Denver and back.

He would've been forever branded a volume-shooting loser, just another guy who knew how to win money but didn't know how to win.

If it sometimes seems Anthony takes 80 percent of the shots, he was going to take 95 percent of the blame, with five percent left over for would-be PGA Tour pro J.R. Smith, whose Game 3 elbow landed his team in a perilous place.

Melo understood this pending disaster would be dropped squarely on his shoulders, injured or not. "Always," he said later.

Always. Same goes for Eli Manning and every other franchise player in the market before and after Melo arrived in 2011.

Of those burdens, Anthony said, "I can't go into a basketball game thinking about that. My mind was clear. I had one thing in my mind, and that was to do whatever it takes to win this basketball game tonight, to do whatever it takes to win this basketball series."

What an absurd series finale it was, too. Good for 47 points over the first three quarters, when they looked old and punch drunk, the Celtics suddenly flipped TD Garden on its ear. Anthony had been grimacing throughout with a left shoulder injury that's getting worse, not better, and another bump amid the furious Celtic rally left him doubled over in pain.

But he couldn't come up with any exit strategy on this night, a night when the crowd taunted him with chants of "Honey Nut Cheerios," a reference to the first alleged Celtic insult about his wife (courtesy of Kevin Garnett, during the regular season, inspiring Melo to chase him out to the bus), not the second (courtesy of Jordan Crawford following Game 5). Jason Kidd once found himself in the middle of a Boston scene like this with the New Jersey Nets in 2002, when the Celtics overcame a 26-point deficit in Game 3 of a series that saw Kidd subjected to chants that made Friday night's a walk in Central Park.

Kidd's Nets recovered to win that Eastern Conference final, but Melo's Knicks weren't going to recover from this. The franchise hadn't won a playoff series in 13 seasons. Had the Knicks blown Game 6, they could've restored Willis Reed's tunnel in the Garden on Saturday, or played Game 7 in Clyde Frazier's backyard, and it wouldn't have mattered. Doc Rivers would've been the one talking about the Indiana Pacers on Sunday night.

Anthony took a unique approach to the challenge. "I don't really like to use the word 'decoy,'" he said, but he decided to sort of act like one, anyway, letting the Pablo Prigionis and Iman Shumperts and Raymond Feltons get their looks.

"I'm pretty sure that the Celtics really thought that I was going to come out guns blazing," Anthony said. So he deferred a bit -- if only a bit -- until everything fell apart in the end and the Knicks gave him the ball and asked him to iso his way into the second round.

This was no easy task. Anthony had lost eight of nine first-round series as a Nugget and Knick, and his 17-37 postseason record entering this series was the worst in league history. Four hundred and fifty one NBA players had competed in at least 50 postseason games, and Melo ranked four hundred and fifty first with a .315 winning percentage.

"You should never play with any doubt whatsoever," Anthony maintained, something much easier said than done.

The Celtics had made it a 77-73 game in front of a delirious crowd when Melo first put the ball, and matters, in his own hands, drawing a foul on Brandon Bass with 3:50 left and then sinking both free throws. Avery Bradley would steal the ball from Anthony and throw down a breakaway dunk to again make it a four-point game, but Melo answered with a high-degree-of-difficulty pull-up over Bass. After Anthony missed twice and watched Paul Pierce contribute another dreadful shot to his own 4-for-18 line, the Knicks' star found himself with a wide-open 3 at the top of the key, his team up six with 1:43 left.

Again, Anthony had misfired on 19 consecutive 3s. "Nineteen? Damn," he'd say later through a laugh. Melo had also come off his combined 18-for-59 in Games 4 and 5. He had to deal with a missing J.R., the foolish team-wide choice to dress in black Wednesday night, Mike Woodson's strange appearance at a Yankees game, the constant comparisons to the doomed 2004 Yanks, all of it.

"As far as failure goes," Melo would say, "I can't step onto the court thinking about failure. It's all about me persevering, me succeeding, my teammates succeeding, we succeeding as a team. When you start second-guessing everything, when you start playing with doubt, it brings a lot of stress to the situation.

"I can't afford to play under [those] circumstances."

He couldn't afford to go zero for his last 20 from 3, either.

"Somebody like myself, as a scorer," he said, "you always believe that the next one is going in."

Long done being a decoy, Anthony squared up and fired away, finding the net and that Game 1 date with the Pacers he so badly needed.

"It's a big relief for myself, for us as a team, for the organization to make that next step," he said. "Just getting out of the first round is something I've been looking forward to since I came here to New York, something that the organization has been looking forward to, something that the city of New York has been looking forward to."

Knicks fans have been looking forward to it since 2000, just a little hope, some small reason to believe. Prigioni set the tone early with his 3s, and Shumpert had a huge steal late in the kind of game he didn't get to play last spring, when his knee imploded against the Heat.

"Their best player," Rivers called Shumpert, who was far more efficient in getting his 17 points than Anthony was in getting his 21.

But Melo did have five assists and seven rebounds and a couple of steals, not to mention the sweeping rejection of Pierce as the conquest's exclamation point. And if all the blame was heading his way in the event of an epic choke, he now deserves all the credit.

His old team, the Denver Nuggets, could've used him in the end against Golden State, and instead were stuck with Wilson Chandler trying and failing to make a shot.

Friday night, matched against the team that swept him in 2011, Carmelo Anthony made the plays he had to make. One postseason ghost down, at least one or two more to go.