Commentary

Carmelo Anthony aces his first test

Exorcising the demons from his shoot-first past, Melo seals Game 1 with a dish

Updated: April 21, 2013, 7:59 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Carmelo Anthony motioned for Kenyon Martin to run a pick-and-roll, and yes, Kevin Garnett had seen that tired movie before. Garnett could have followed Martin's hard dive to the basket, but he knew what more than 19,000 fellow witnesses inside Madison Square Garden knew:

Anthony was going to honor his basic basketball instinct. Melo wouldn't be Melo if he didn't launch another shot.

Anthony stood at the top of the key with 36 points already in his hip pocket, and not a single assist to his name. Jeff Green was guarding him with 45 seconds left in Game 1, with the New York Knicks leading the Boston Celtics by five. Martin was approaching to set a screen when Garnett measured his critical call, when the proud Celtic made the logical choice of helping Green rather than rolling with the Knick who had virtually no chance of touching the ball.

[+] EnlargeCarmelo Anthony
Debby Wong/USA TODAY SportsCarmelo Anthony scored 36 points on 29 shots in Saturday's win.

Suddenly Anthony studied the double-team as the devil on his left shoulder debated the angel on his right. One voice was telling him to be the Melo of the past, a conscience-free scorer who never met a pull-up he didn't like. The other voice was telling him to be the Melo of the present, the one heavily influenced by the selfless and ageless Jason Kidd.

The one willing to throw the pass he has to throw.

The Carmelo Anthony who had lost eight of nine first-round playoff series as a Denver Nugget and Knick would have tried to beat both Celtics off the dribble. The Carmelo Anthony who is favored to win this series, and the next one, fired a more meaningful pass than any delivered last season by that conspicuous courtside fan, Mark Sanchez, the New Yorker who inspired the loudest boo of the day.

It was high and hard and Lord knows how Martin held onto it. Kidd called it a Dez Bryant catch, Tyson Chandler called it a "Joe Flacco to [Anquan] Boldin hook-up," and K-Mart called it a "terrible pass." Whatever.

Martin made the layup with 40.6 seconds to play, and even the most stubborn of Celtic leprechauns lost all hope. Carmelo Anthony had sealed it with a dish. No, the pass wasn't Michael Jordan's to Bill Wennington to win his 55-point comeback game at the Garden in 1995, but it was a promising development all the same.

As he walked out of the building Saturday, Anthony was asked if he would've made that same play in his younger days, or if he would've kept the ball for himself.

"It's hard to think of three or four years ago, but I'm just glad I made the pass today, I'll tell you that," Anthony told ESPNNewYork.com. "It was an instinct thing. I didn't try to force it. I didn't try to make a play on my own and try to attack KG off the pick-and-roll."

Anthony laughed as he made his way to the Garden exit, the burden of his past postseason failures lifted until Tuesday night.

"As a younger player, I don't know," he said. "Now I try to utilize everybody on the team rather than try to do it myself. I know now in order to win, you can't do it by yourself. And that's something I had to grow with and really figure out."

Anthony had no choice but to figure it out, as he entered this series with a 17-37 personal record in the playoffs, a .315 winning percentage. Four hundred and fifty fellow NBA players have appeared in at least 50 postseason games, and all 450 have a better winning percentage than that.

Even if the sides were stacked against him more often than not, Melo wouldn't be human if that record didn't bother him. The Knicks have brought in some established winners to help him tweak his game and approach, to remind him there's no "i" in Anthony, and the 40-year-old Kidd was foremost among them.

A three-time Finalist and one-time champ, Kidd has appeared in 17 consecutive postseason tournaments; only John Stockton (19) and Karl Malone (19) pieced together longer streaks. Saturday, after Kidd's hands were so busy disrupting Boston's offense and shepherding New York's, Doc Rivers awarded him a doctorate in advanced bracketology.

"He beats everyone with his brain," said the Celtics' coach. "He beats them into the ground with his brain."

No coach is saying that about Carmelo Anthony, not yet anyway. And while many around the league have praised Melo for embracing a more team-friendly philosophy this year, a quick review of his stats show he averaged a mere 2.6 assists in the regular season, matching his career low from 2004-05.

But this is one of those hard-to-define, easy-to-see things. Melo's racked up more hockey assists than usual, the passes that lead to the passes that lead to wide-open looks for others. He hasn't been the same ball-stopping, clock-killing, isolation-loving star who drove George Karl and Mike D'Antoni mad.

Mike Woodson isn't looking to change anything about Anthony for Game 2, even if his franchise player needed 29 shots to get his 36 points in Game 1. Melo started out 4-for-4 and scoring 10 of the Knicks' first 12 points, which inspired an early round of M-V-P chants.

He went cold in the middle of the day before responding in the fourth, when he sank four of five shots and the big jumper, a 21-footer from the corner with 1:21 left.

"When we got into a tough stretch," Woodson said, "he made the plays we needed him to make. That is what the great ones do."

The great ones also show the grace Anthony showed when he addressed the crowd with Paul Pierce in a moving, bipartisan tribute to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing.

On the court, after life gives away to the temporary sanctuary of sport, the great ones also throw the pass Anthony threw to Martin for his first and last assist of the afternoon.

"I made a tough pass," Melo said, "and didn't know if he was going to get there."

K-Mart got there and finished the play before Anthony thanked his teammate for bailing him out.

Hey, nobody was asking for a perfect strike from an imperfect star. The Knicks and their fans just wanted a timely and hopeful show of selflessness to start the playoffs, and Carmelo Anthony gave them all of that.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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