|The Knicks need Carmelo Anthony to put them on his back as they fight for a playoff spot. (AP)|
NEW YORK -- There was nothing to see here until the first 6 ½ minutes of the third quarter, when perhaps yet another chapter in this novella of a Knicks season began.
By contrast, there'd been plenty to see during the previous, oh, four or five mini-seasons the Knicks have experienced. Some of it was quite forgettable. Other aspects, like the Jeremy Lin era -- remember that? -- were memorable but seem like a decade ago.
This was something the Knicks haven't seen consistently since January. This was Carmelo Anthony, being Carmelo Anthony.
It was a 16-point halftime lead for the Knicks against the Magic, who'd apparently put much more effort into their day off in New York than into the game they'd come here to play. Out of the tunnel for the third quarter, his injured groin in danger of tightening up and spoiling a good thing, Anthony found something other than another challenge or disappointment in this, his first full season as a Knick, and a rocky one at that.
He found the basket. He found his shot.
"I just started getting a little rhythm out there tonight," Anthony said, after scoring 25 points in three quarters of a 108-86 victory over the Magic on Wednesday night. "I was just trying to pick my spots."
Early in the third, Anthony unleashed a 3-pointer, a laser-like pass to Landry Fields for a layup, followed by a 17-footer that gave the Knicks a 20-point lead. Soon, a 22-footer dropped. Then a 17-footer. Anthony pumped both fists and galloped back down the court, a superstar finally playing super; finally, having fun.
"This is always a fun time, right before the playoffs when guys have to pick up their games," Anthony said. "Why not want to play in these type of basketball games?"
Anthony, who'd arrived in New York as a conquering hero last February, had the look and spoke the words of a man who hadn't enjoyed a basketball game in a long time.
"I'm just trying to take care of my business, take care of my body," Melo said. "That's the most important thing."
The Knicks need Amar'e Stoudemire if they have designs on going anywhere in the playoffs. That much seems clear. But they'll need Melo to get them there, and to put them in a position to reach the potential many felt they carried into this season -- and briefly reached when Lin rescued them from desperate times in February. Yes, that was only last month, though it seems like a time and place much more distant.
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They'll need Anthony being Anthony, embracing the challenge of carrying the offensive load on the court and setting the example in the trainer's room, with which he's become quite familiar. His teammates have noticed him there at all hours, trying to keep another groin injury from sending him to the bench, where he could only watch most of that Lin-inspired, seven-game winning streak from Feb. 4-15.
"I'm just playing my part, trying to be one of the leaders of this team," Anthony said.
Had Anthony's services been required in the fourth quarter -- the Magic, who at one point trailed by 39, were "awful," as coach Stan Van Gundy said, so that wasn't the case -- he would've enjoyed his first 30-point game since Jan. 20, a drought of 26 games. But more than the points, as important as they are without Stoudemire for the next 2-4 weeks, Anthony's challenge is to be the leader he's never really been forced to be. To the extent that the Knicks couldn't continue with Mike D'Antoni because D'Antoni couldn't continue with Melo, the responsibility rests with Anthony to make it right.
To his credit, he hasn't run from it. He's recognized it, and embraced it.
This is Anthony's time now, a time when he has to push through an injury and the weirdness of this Knicks season to catch Philadelphia and Boston for the Atlantic Division title and a top-four playoff seed. Anything less and they'd probably wind up playing with fire against the Bulls or Heat in the first round.
The Knicks have enjoyed a soft patch in the schedule in winning eight of Mike Woodson's first nine games as interim coach. Between now and April 10, they have the Hawks, Pacers, Magic again and Bulls twice. At some point during that stretch, Lin will come back, and there will be another adjustment to be made. The team's hope is to work Stoudemire back into the plans before the end of the regular season, and give Woodson a shot in the playoffs at doing something D'Antoni could never quite do: win with both of them.
"I don't think I'm doing anything more or less than when [Stoudemire] was here," Anthony said.
But it isn't the more or the less, it's the where. The one significant tweak Woodson made to D'Antoni's offense was to emphasize getting the ball to Anthony -- by far the team's best postup player -- on the block. The inside-out approach worked Wednesday night, as Anthony got his points around the basket early and then started bombing away from outside. That's his formula. That's the Melo we used to know.
"We never had a conversation about that," Anthony said of Woodson posting him up more than D'Antoni did. "That's just something that he implied. I guess he just saw that I'm very comfortable down there."
The Knicks caught a rare break Wednesday night, getting the Magic in town for the dreaded night game after a day off in New York. Van Gundy took the blame for not having the right offensive approach to exploit the Knicks' small-ball lineup, but said of the Knicks getting 16 offensive rebounds with that lineup, "That's an effort problem."
"What's shocking to me is that a team that's playing over .600 basketball could get absolutely rocked as many times as we have," Van Gundy said.
The Knicks, having sleep-walked through D'Antoni's final six losses as their coach, are familiar with effort problems. But they have half the battle won, because the player whose responsibility it is to fix it not only understands that, but seems to want badly to make it happen.
"It's not going to be only one player who's going to be able to take Jeremy Lin's spot or take Amar'e Stoudemire's spot," said Tyson Chandler, who's been the Knicks' glue through all of it. "We're going to have to do it as a team collectively."
Eventually, in the playoffs, yes. But for now, there is one guy who has to do it. And he seems to know, once again, exactly who he is.