Column: Melo has to show he can make a team great
Demanding as New Yorkers can be, it doesn't take much to keep Knicks fans happy.
Their team last won a championship 40 years ago, and until the Knicks knocked off the Boston Celtics last week, they hadn't made it past the first round of the NBA playoffs even once in the last dozen. Amare Stoudemire's arrival didn't make them championship contenders, and neither has Carmelo Anthony's.
Beating the Indiana Pacers 105-79 in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference semifinal Tuesday night evened the series at 1-1 but didn't change that, either. It might have vanquished some ghosts, however, since Knicks fans couldn't have been more spooked after what happened in the same place against the same team exactly 18 years ago. That's when Indiana star-turned-NBA analyst Reggie Miller scored eight points in the final 9 seconds to steal a playoff win against the Knicks, one of the most traumatic losses in franchise history.
''That was nice to see,'' New York coach Mike Woodson said afterward, and he was right about this much: When they share the ball, hustle and play defense, instead of deferring to Anthony as the first and often only option, the Knicks can compete.
They led by as many as 13 points in the first half, but gave them all back and then some as the third quarter wound down. But after a 10-4 run highlighted by back-to-back 3-pointers put Indiana on top 64-62, Pacers coach Frank Vogel called a timeout and pulled Roy Hibbert, his big man in the middle and most effective defender.
Vogel has a deserved reputation as one of the league's best young coaches, largely on the strength of his innovative defenses. Indiana led the NBA in tamping down opponents' field-goal percentage, largely by packing the paint under their basket and daring teams to beat them from the perimeter. The Knicks tried that - with disastrous results - in Game 1, and seemed headed down the same road until that fateful timeout.
With Hibbert out of the picture, Anthony went straight to the rim on consecutive plays for a layup and then a dunk. Once he got revved up - Anthony followed with 16 of his 32 points on the night - the Knicks followed his lead and took off on a 30-2 run that effectively put the game out of reach midway through the fourth quarter.
Vogel had used Paul George to cover Anthony, with Hibbert roaming around the basket as a backup to great effect in Game 1. The idea was to force Anthony to settle for midrange jump shots, something the Knicks star does too often, and keep Hibbert at the rim in case. When Anthony failed to read the defense and stubbornly held onto the ball, as he did in Game 1 and for much of the Boston series, his teammates weren't good enough to bail him out. Sixth-man J.R. Smith filled the role admirably, especially coming on late in the regular season, but he's gone cold in the postseason.
Yet by the time the Pacers tried to reorganize their defense in this one, it was too late. With Anthony making six of his final eight shots, Indiana's spacing was largely ineffective and his Knicks teammates made good use of their opportunities.
''Melo just caught fire,'' George said.
''He's just a beast of an offensive player,'' Vogel concurred.
''I got to take the shots that are given,'' Anthony said afterward. ''Today, I was a little more patient and kind of made adjustments to their defense.''
Game 3 doesn't come until Saturday at Indiana, but you can bet Vogel won't make the same mistakes again.
''I usually use that situation,'' he said about the timeout, ''to put something in while we have the ball.''
Then again, the Knicks could have Stoudemire back by the next game - he had his knees cleaned up during surgery in March - and Smith's shooting touch should return any day now. Woodson has pressed Kenyon Martin into service to help Tyson Chandler wrestle the Pacers front line, so Stoudemire could alter the balance down low. And if Smith's shots start dropping, well ... well, it still comes back to Anthony.
He caught most of the heat for the Game 1 loss, mostly because he forced too many shots, but Anthony has been doing that his entire career. He's already taken more shots than anybody else so far this postseason. He can make a bad team good by himself, but has yet to prove he knows how to make a good team great.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/Jim Litke.