|Carmelo Anthony is still difficult to beat at the end of games. (Getty Images)|
MINNEAPOLIS -- New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony has always had a reputation for being an inefficient scorer who doesn't play much defense and stops the ball on offense. When discussing the elite players of the NBA, his name was polarizing. He wasn't LeBron James, and he wasn't Kevin Durant. He was a "selfish" player who cared more about getting up shots than he did about getting the team going.
Fair or not, that has been the criticism of Anthony in recent years. However, when discussing his name in terms of the most clutch players in the NBA, that criticism seemed to fly out the window. He has long been regarded as one of the best scorers with the game on the line. He has always been one of the guys you want handling end-of-game responsibilities because few players, if any, have consistently outperformed Anthony in that situation.
As his game has evolved and prospered playing the power-forward position more than the wing position over the past year or so with the Knicks, the criticism has softened quite a bit. Anthony is much more efficient now; as a power forward, he's quite passable on defense. However, even with all of this team's success and growth within his game this season, his clutch play has been lacking from what we're used to seeing.
For his career, Carmelo Anthony is a 41.8 percent shooter in clutch situations (+/- five points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime periods). Anything over 40 percent is generally considered pretty clutch. His second season in the NBA was his least-clutch season, when he made just 32.6 percent of shots in those situations. He had been over 40 percent every season since (including a ridiculous 2008-09 season, in which he shot 56.5 percent in the clutch) until his first full season with the Knicks.
Last season, the Knicks struggled with injuries, coaching battles and a media circus surrounding Jeremy Lin. And Anthony made just 37.8 percent of clutch shots. It's not a horrendous number, but it's certainly not acceptable for someone like Anthony. This season, he's back at exactly 40 percent and showed on Friday night why he's still one of the best in the league when he took over in the Knicks' 100-94 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
A Derrick Williams jumper with 7:16 left in the game gave the Wolves an 11-point lead. On the next play, Anthony got the ball in the mid-post and the Wolves doubled hard on him, forcing him to pass the ball out to the perimeter. As the Knicks are so good at doing, they swung it around the arc from Raymond Felton to Jason Kidd to J.R. Smith. Smith gladly took, and buried, the lightly-contested 3-pointer. It showed the Wolves the danger of what happens when you double Anthony.
Over the course of the final 6:50 in the game, Anthony outscored the Wolves 12-7 on his own and the Knicks finished the game on a 24-7 run to grab a road victory. That possession of 3-point shooting by the Knicks is something that they've done all season. If you overplay the pick-and-roll or double against Anthony, the ball moves and it moves surgically. They find shooters and tear you down. So you can double-team Anthony and hope your defense scrambles properly on its rotations or you can live with making him beat you with tough shots.
The Wolves opted for the latter, and it didn't work out.
"Well, you've got to try make him take jump shots," Wolves coach Rick Adelman said after the loss, "but he made some tough shots. And the problem you have is, they have shooters on the court with him."
Looking at eight of the points that Anthony scored in the fourth quarter, you see the full repertoire of how he can destroy you.
"I don't really see single coverages a lot," Anthony said after his 36-point performance. "So when I do, it's just a matter of just trying to take advantage of that, get to my spots out there on the basketball court and try to make something happen."
Williams had an admirable effort defensively against Anthony, but there's only so much that you can do when you're trying to defend him by yourself. In this play, Anthony is isolated at the top against Williams. He gives the hesitation dribble with the left before driving. His ability to stop on a short jumper like that in the lane, before Nikola Pekovic can step up and contest the shot, is just incredible.
The defeating thing about defending Anthony is he's already hard to stop with his quickness on the perimeter, but he can also beat you in the post. Synergy has Anthony ranked as the eighth-best post-up player in points per possession at 0.97, which is an incredible mark. He utilizes the post-up on 17.2 percent of the plays that end with him taking a shot, getting to the free-throw line or turning the ball over. Other than isolation plays, which comprise 29.4 percent of his scoring possessions, he posts up more than he does anything else. And that's where you probably have to be your most disciplined against him.
"I thought we overcommitted a couple of times when we had him in a tough spot," Adelman said. "He picked his dribble up, he pump faked and we flew by him and he got to the rim. That's when you've just got to keep him there and make him make shots over the top of you."
Anthony is so physical with his defenders, and it's hard for that to come through on television. He throws his shoulder into them to knock them off balance, he constantly moves their hands off of him while he's bodying them for position to get to his spots and he just finds ways to overpower them. Defenders have to be prepared for the beating that he can give them.
This makes his footwork and savvy in the post even more deadly. You're waiting for contact so he can create space for his shot. When you think it's about to come, he pump fakes you and makes a textbook step-through for the easy bucket. If you aren't going to double team him, you have to be as disciplined as possible.
Adelman knows the best that you can do is stay with him and hope he misses contested shots. Because the Knicks are so deadly on the perimeter, guards in help defense can't really dig down on Anthony too much. As you can see in this play, Anthony uses his quickness to get space from Dante Cunningham on a drive. Ricky Rubio is defending Smith on the perimeter, so he has to be cognizant of the shooting threat on the outside. He can't double down and truly swipe at the ball; he can only give a passing effort.
Anthony gets a contested shot against Cunningham but still manages to knock down the little running half-hook. What are you supposed to do in that situation?
The final bucket for Anthony in the fourth quarter came out of the pick-and-roll with Tyson Chandler. The Knicks are the second-best team in the NBA scoring with the roll man on the pick-and-roll, so you have to stay home in the paint and hope the defender getting screened can fight through the pick.
The Wolves play this decently, not giving up a lob opportunity to Chandler. But letting Anthony get to that spot on the floor and take a relatively uncontested jumper just won't get it done.
"He's just got that ability to take it to the hole or make jumpers," Adelman said. "You know, you do the best you can but he's a great player."
And that's the difficult choice that you have to make with a player like Anthony who doesn't seem to feel pressure at the end of games. You can make their deadly 3-point shooters try to beat you, or you can hope to stop 2-point shots instead (unless he's feeling squirrelly and wants to take more 3-pointers). Anthony just dissects a defense so methodically, it's hard to have an answer for him.
"Just take my time, do what I have to do and try to get to my spots," Anthony explained in the locker room afterward. "If they double, somebody's open."
The Knicks didn't complete this comeback victory just because of Anthony's offense. They held Minnesota to just 35-percent shooting in the fourth quarter, blocking three of the 13 misses by the Wolves. But you need scoring to complement defensive stops. You need those big shots from your star player or created by your star player in order to give value to the defensive stops you make at the end of a game.
"He wasn't going to let us lose," Knicks coach Mike Woodson said when asked about Anthony's effort in the fourth quarter. "He made offensive plays after offensive plays. For the most part, he dominated the fourth quarter with his offense."
That's just the reputation that Carmelo Anthony has made for himself.