By the end of the third quarter, Carmelo Anthony had drained one 3-pointer after another, erupting for 18 points in the kind of way that diminishes the opposition. Then coach Mike Woodson decided to give Melo a breather to start the fourth quarter, oblivious to the reality that he had no one else to finish it. And by the time the New York Knicks realized the obvious, it was entirely too late.
Chris Paul was too good. As was Jamal Crawford. And the Knicks -- without a fourth-quarter explosion from Melo -- proved yet again that they simply are not good enough. Aside from losing 102-88 to the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday, the Knicks are in the process of losing something else: votes for Carmelo Anthony for league MVP honors.
There is no doubt that LeBron James is playing a role in Melo's suddenly diminished stature. This is what happens when Melo's primary opposition for MVP honors has hit 49 of his past 65 shots, having scored 30-plus points on better than 70 percent shooting from the field in the past five games, while keeping the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference lead.
Where is Melo's help?
It can't be found at the moment.
Chris Paul is another MVP candidate, but after the 27-point outing Crawford registered at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, it's clear that Paul has help. The same could be said for Kevin Durant, who still has Russell Westbrook, arguably the most athletic point guard in NBA history, as his sidekick.
Again, where is Melo's help? Somebody to make the Knicks seem like more than a one-man team, capable of being stripped of its potency the second a Kevin Garnett strolls into town and contributes to Melo shooting 6-for-26 from the field?
"I think we have a great team," Melo told me recently. "We've got the pieces to really make a run for it all. I really believe that. Guys just have to do what we do."
Actually, the Knicks need to do what they're supposed to do. And it hasn't happened recently.
A defense that was once ranked second in the league is now ranked eighth after spending Sunday afternoon giving up 31 points in the fourth quarter. For every win vs. the Heat, Spurs or Celtics, there's a loss vs. the Wizards and the Kings.
No-shows are more common than ever. Injuries are perpetual. Inconsistencies are repetitive. And doubt simply won't dissipate.
None of it qualifies as a surprise, considering that J.R. Smith, the team's second-leading scorer, is shooting less than 40 percent from the field; opposing point guards seem to be salivating at the thought of playing against Raymond Felton; and Iman Shumpert, the team's shut-down backcourt defender, is still struggling with his lateral movement after missing most of this season with a knee injury. But it still needs to be addressed, because the clock is ticking.
"There are four other guys out there on the basketball court (with me)," Anthony told reporters after Sunday's game. "We've just got to make plays. We've been doing that all season long. (Sunday), we just didn't make plays in the fourth quarter."
That simply isn't good enough to hear from Melo any longer. With the Knicks exhibiting their inconsistent ways, ruining a recent five-game winning streak by losing to the Wizards, plus losing two of the past three, it doesn't help that Miami is flourishing. The Celtics are surging, having answered a six-game losing streak with a seven-game winning streak.
If the Knicks are not careful, they could find themselves battling for a fourth seed in the East instead of a No. 1 or 2.
"There's the bottom line," Woodson said. "We can beat anybody when we're playing our game, and we can lose to anybody when we're not."
The Knicks could even lose in the first round of the playoffs. Unfortunately, that's not all that can go wrong.
Consider that Melo, the league's leading scorer (29.0 ppg), has fallen a bit off the radar. That he has been maligned in some circles as someone whose level of production doesn't translate into wins.
LeBron doesn't have that problem. D-Wade doesn't have that issue. Kevin Durant barely has a negative word said about him. Same for Chris Paul or Tony Parker.
"I'm not worried about individual awards, just winning, man," Melo told me weeks ago. "Winning resolves everything. When you don't win, you don't feel like you deserve much of anything. If I can't compete for a championship, the MVP is not going to be a priority for me."
That much is good to know.