- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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BOSTON -- With a white towel draped over his shoulders, the loser in a game Baron Davis would liken to a heavyweight championship fight, Carmelo Anthony leaned against a locker room wall and tilted his head inches from a yellow sheet of paper announcing the chapel's sermon for the day.
"Expect to Beat Your Goliaths" it read, and by late Sunday afternoon Anthony knew he had buckled under the weight of that expectation. The Boston Celtics had swept the New York Knicks out of last year's playoffs, and had beaten them in 10 consecutive regular-season home games, and this was Anthony's chance to establish a new Atlantic Division order, to make those graying Celtics feel older than dirt.
He had the ball in his hands in the final regulation seconds of a tied game at TD Garden, the ball and the burdens of stardom. Anthony wasn't just hired to take this shot, but to make it, too, and last winter the Knicks sent everyone but Howie Komives to Denver to watch him do it.
Jeremy Lin might be the face of the franchise, the starting quarterback for years to come, but Anthony remains the Knicks' best player, and the one required to answer the kind of absurd shot Paul Pierce made with 4.9 seconds to go, a leaning 3-pointer with better hang time than Tom Brady's final heave in Super Bowl XLVI.
So with the score at 103-103, Mike D'Antoni called timeout and came up with the right play. The coach picked Melomania over Linsanity, and hoped for the best.
The inbounds pass went to Lin. The point guard immediately looked to his right to pass to Anthony, who was being covered by Pierce. Two heavyweights, two scoring forwards, two guys with one championship ring between them.
Anthony came to New York for a crack at ending a title drought -- his own and that of the Knicks. Melo hasn't won it all since his one-and-done at Syracuse, and the Knicks have been trying and failing since 1973. This wasn't Game 7 of a first-round series, never mind Game 7 of the Finals, but everyone agreed afterward that it sure felt like a high-stakes Sunday in May.
A little more than a year ago, after Amare Stoudemire was signed and before Anthony was acquired, Pierce said this of Celtics-Knicks: "It's a rivalry? I didn't know we had a rivalry going." It was his way of insulting a franchise that deserved it.
But post-Melo and post-Lin, Pierce decided the rivalry had merit because the Knicks "became relevant again." And after Anthony made the three clutch baskets that preceded Steve Novak's foul shots, the Knicks were relevant enough to put Pierce on the spot. He did his part, too, nailing the 3 while a nearby Iman Shumpert held up his arms.
Something about the matchup with Melo, Pierce said, "brings the best out of you." So it was time for Anthony to respond with his best in the building where he'd made a royal mess of last year's Game 1, and where he was brilliant in Game 2 before deciding to throw Jared Jeffries the ball.
Lin made some daring plays late but didn't deserve this fateful shot, not after he was thoroughly outplayed by Rajon Rondo, whose 18-point, 20-assist, 17-rebound performance summoned the names of Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain. So Lin gave it up to Anthony on the wing and watched with everyone else as Melo dribbled toward the corner, rose up above Pierce and let fly with a clean look at the goal.
"That's what we wanted for the game winner," Lin said, "and that was the play, so we don't have any regrets."
Except one, of course.
"I missed it," Anthony said. "It happens."
The Celtics won in overtime -- that happens, too. Melo missed all four of his field goal attempts in those five minutes, and finished 8-for-21 for 25 points against Pierce's 13-for-23 for 34 points. All in all, Anthony didn't play a bad game despite his admitted "bonehead play" -- picking up his third foul with nine-tenths of a second left in the first half -- and despite picking up his fourth in the middle of the third quarter before Boston pushed its lead to 15.
But on a day when the Celtics and Knicks launched 197 shots, the difference between the winners and losers was the difference between the aim of Pierce and Anthony when it mattered most.
D'Antoni blamed the loss on turnovers, foul trouble, Lin's growing pains (yes, even he has them) and just plain bum luck. The losing coach credited Pierce for making "a heck of a shot," but refused to cite execution as the reason the 3 went down. "That's having a horseshoe up your rear," D'Antoni said.
Apparently Anthony is still searching for his horseshoe. D'Antoni thought his man's shot was a difficult one to make, but agreed that Melo "had a good look at it." Just not good enough.
"There are some little things that we have to get better at," Anthony said. "I think and I believe that we will make adjustments going down [to Dallas] for the next game. It's over with, and there's nothing I can do or say right now that will change the results."
It was a tough result to take. The last time the Knicks visited Boston, Lin was still an unknown scrub who played six and a half forgettable minutes before a homecoming crowd that had no reaction when the Harvard grad entered the game. The following night, Lin went off against the New Jersey Nets, and nothing about the Knicks would ever be the same.
"They have a different spirit," Rivers said late Sunday morning, which is why the Harvard president (Drew Gilpin Faust) and basketball coach (Tommy Amaker) were in attendance, and why Celtics fans were moved to boo Lin when he first touched the ball.
But Lin got outplayed by his opponent, and Anthony got outplayed by his. As a freshman, more or less, Lin had an excuse that his upperclassman teammate didn't have.
"As far as closing out games, closing out quarters," Anthony maintained, "that's going to come."
Only if Carmelo Anthony makes the big shots he was hired to make, the Sunday shot Paul Pierce had no trouble making for the home team.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.
3dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann