The San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night learned firsthand one of the most surprising truths of this still-early NBA regular season: The team that Carmelo Anthony wrought by sheer will, ego and self-interest is a force to be reckoned with.
In battling back from an 12-point, fourth-quarter deficit, on the road and against one of the league’s best teams, Anthony’s Knicks cemented the fact that their start — now 6-0 — is no mirage.
The Knicks’ 104-100 win in San Antonio was their best of the season despite having won every other game by at least 10 points, including a 20-point drubbing of Miami to kick off the season.
That’s right: Carmelo Anthony, having spent the past two seasons turning two teams upside down in order to refashion them in his own image — an image in which he is the star, the shooter, the bright light around which all others orbit — has shown those like me who scoffed at his need for control and his my-way-or-no-way-at-all sensibility, that perhaps he knew exactly what he was doing.
Anthony forced his way out of Denver despite the presence of one of the league’s best head coaches — a deal that gutted the Knicks, a team one would presume he would want loaded with talent if he were to go there. But, no, Melo has shown he need be the only talent that matters.
Once in New York, it didn’t take long for Anthony to turn his unwillingness to embrace Mike D’Antoni’s offensive approach into more drama. By last season, D’Antoni was out as head coach. He was replaced by Mike Woodson, someone ready to run the team the Carmelo Anthony way.
In related news, the Linsanity phenomenon that had robbed much of the spotlight from Anthony during that season got squashed and allowed to leave for Houston.
With an assist from Amar’e Stoudemire’s aching body, which has been injured this season, Melo had finally succeeded in forging a team with only one star (Carmelo Anthony) and a head coach who understands just what that star wants (a hire blessed, you would think, by Carmelo Anthony).
The Knicks are now 6-0 for only the second time in team history, and in dispatching the Spurs on the road, they’ve made it mean something. This team is tough, united and dangerous. This team is for real.
Most shocking of all was how they won. Melo scored just nine points, but he pulled down 12 rebounds, and his passing and defense was light years ahead of the mopey style that hampered him during last season’s Linsanity madness.
This is a league in which stars often dictate their futures and dominate their teams in most every way. LeBron James did it in Cleveland. Dwight Howard was able to get what he wanted — an exit from Orlando and a spot in one of our biggest, brightest cities. Deron Williams forced his way out of Utah and in effect pushed Jerry Sloan into early retirement.
So maybe Melo, having finally gotten his own wish list fulfilled, finally is showing us that he can win once he’s on a team calibrated to his own liking.
In fact, as Melo rebounded and played defense Thursday, the Knicks scored with balance: Five players scored 10 or more points, and two players scored nine.
So many things about this team seem different, starting with the fine guard play. Raymond Felton went off for 25 points Thursday night while dishing seven assists and limiting himself to just two turnovers. Jason Kidd notched 14 points behind three fourth-quarter 3-pointers — including a dagger with just over a minute left in the game.
Tyson Chandler was his usual excellent self with 13 points and 11 rebounds. J.R. Smith, twice as accurate from the 3-point line as he was last season, came off the bench for 17 points, and the suddenly ageless Rasheed Wallace provided 10 points during 15 minutes of solid, gritty play.
But maybe the biggest star so far for the Knicks this season, outside of Carmelo Anthony himself, is the head coach Melo foisted upon New York.
Since replacing D’Antoni, Woodson has led the Knicks to a 24-6 regular-season record. Woodson’s leadership got them into the playoffs last season, and it has them undefeated this season and leading the league in scoring defense. That’s a stat that can translate into championships.
There will be problems to face going forward. When Stoudemire returns, so will the fact he and Melo do not fit together when they’re both on the floor. This is Melo’s team, and that team — in terms of pure basketball terms, as well as what Anthony almost certainly desires — has little place for Stoudemire.
The other problem will be the Miami Heat, who may be dealing with a bit of a post-championship hangover right now but remain the undisputed class of the Eastern Conference.
There’s also age. The Knicks are old, historically old, and nagging injuries, fatigue and betting on a team with an average age of 32 could all become keys to New York’s basketball narrative.
Another factor is the fear that the individual parts making up this suddenly synced excellence will return to the mean and make the Knicks once again average.
Smith said Thursday that he’s playing better because he’s giving up the New York nightlife; will that last?
Melo has been playing better defense and investing in a more complete game, but can that be a lasting fact, particularly if the team keeps getting big wins in games in which he only scores nine points?
Felton has been excellent, but he is a Knicks point guard, and recent historical trends seem stacked against him.
And Woodson, for all the signs that he knows exactly what he’s doing, has a very small sample size on which to assess his ability to handle an 82-game season and a two-month-long playoffs in which every single play becomes weighted with pressure and expectation.
Whatever happens, it will happen because of Carmelo Anthony.
Players always have recognized the remarkable talent bursting from Anthony’s game, but few playing alongside him at the NBA level have seen that translate into real, lasting excellence.
Whether this is the year that changes will become clear later. For now, the New York Knicks are an improbable 6-0 because, just as improbably, all of Carmelo Anthony’s machinations to make the team solely his own have actually worked.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.