As we watched Carmelo Anthony dribble and pass on Monday afternoon, marveling at the abilities of a 6-foot-8, 240-pound scoring forward doing a not-too-shabby imitation of Magic Johnson, at some point we were reminded of the inevitable: He really isn't Magic Johnson.
Melo isn't Chris Paul, either. Nor Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker or even Jeremy Lin. To make a long story short, Anthony is not a point guard. He has no business being a point forward. He just has to pretend to be one for the moment because of the absence of Raymond Felton -- suddenly the New York Knicks' Most Important Player.
Just in case you haven't been paying attention, there's a story in New York other than the Brooklyn Nets pulling to within just one game of catching the Knicks for the Atlantic Division lead. The bigger story is the absence of Felton, how anemic the Knicks look without him, and the reality that Lin's successor is every bit as important to New York's playoff prospects as Melo obviously is.
"We need our point guard," Knicks center Tyson Chandler told me following the loss to the Nets. "We need him bad. It's not just because it's unfair for Melo to be distracted with point-guard duties, or for Jason Kidd, at 39, to play the minutes he's playing. It's because we need Raymond. He's our catalyst. Plain and simple. I don't know how any of us could feel differently."
The Knicks may be 25-14, prompting folks to act as if they've really won something for the first time in a decade, but they haven't been that impressive lately. They've lost four of their past six. They've lost six of their past 10. The last time they had a three-game winning streak or better was 10 days before Christmas. And now they're looking as if they could possibly lose their division lead -- No. 1 on their list of priorities -- before Valentine's Day.
The Knicks, a top-ranked defense at the beginning of the season, are ranked 10th now. Routinely, teams are launching open, uncontested perimeter shots. They're getting into the lane with ease, seemingly unintimidated by anything the Knicks throw in their direction.
"You have reason to be concerned about their ability to shoot the ball," Nets interim coach P.J. Carlesimo pointed out following his team's 88-85 victory Monday. "They've got one of the great scorers in the game. They've got other guys that can shoot. The key is they seem to feed off made shots energywise. And when they get hot, look out."
So much for wondering about Felton's importance.
For all his struggles, his anemic perimeter shooting over the last 10 games before he was sidelined by a broken right pinkie on Christmas Day, Felton hasn't had to prove his value to the Knicks. The Knicks have done it for him.
Melo isn't the same offensive player when he's having to "think instead of play," as Chandler puts it. Chandler clearly isn't the same offensive player because he doesn't have anyone getting him the ball. New York's numbers have dissipated in field goal shooting and 3-point shooting. Kidd's minutes have elevated a bit too much and, as a result, the Knicks appear to be nothing more than an average team right now.
"We're competing, but we're not getting it done," Knicks coach Mike Woodson explained on Tuesday. "I've got to take the blame for a lot of it and get us over this hump. Get guys more committed to winning, especially at home, since we've let some games slip away. But seven of our next 11 games are at home and we've got to win these games because that's going to be key to us holding on to the division lead, which is our biggest goal.
"As far as Raymond goes, he's a big piece of the puzzle. I'm not one for excuses, but he drives the car in terms of how we run things. Kidd and Pablo [Prigioni] are doing a great job, but Raymond was brought in here to be the starter. [Felton] being out has forced me to play Jason for more than 30 minutes per game and we just can't do that."
The Knicks also can't afford to go into April without Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby healthy. They can't leave Chandler dangling in the lane on his own. They certainly can't continue to put even more of an onus on Anthony, jeopardizing his legs -- and, arguably, his position in the MVP conversation -- but most of all they can't continue to go without Felton.
Felton told reporters at practice on Tuesday that he hopes to be back in the lineup on Saturday in Philly. From that point on, "I think everyone will see a difference in how we play," Chandler added. "I'm not going to lie: It's been very, very difficult for me to find a flow ... like I had when he was in the lineup. Raymond is a setup artist. He knows what he's doing as a floor leader. We need him. We miss him. And if there's anything we've gotten out of his absence, it's that his importance to this team is even more obvious. That may be a good thing for us. It should really be a good thing for Raymond."
Here's hoping it will be a good thing for the Knicks, because the Nets are nipping at their heels, and the clock is ticking.