When the New York Knicks made their second trek to Brooklyn to play the Nets on Tuesday night, the Eastern Conference’s top team came into the Barclays Center with one goal on offense.
"As soon as the refs came in and they threw the ball up," Knicks center Tyson Chandler said, "we just decided to go to ‘Melo."
New York executed its plan to perfection, deviating from the script only when forced to by the Nets’ stingy D, and Carmelo Anthony held up his hefty end of the bargain, scoring 45 points as the Knicks (16-5) rallied from 17 points down for a 100-97 road win, sending Brooklyn to its fifth consecutive loss.
The 45 points were the most for Anthony since being traded to New York in February 2011, and his 27.7 points-per-game average is the five-time All-Star’s highest total since his final season in Denver.
But after the game, it wasn’t ‘Melo’s scoring prowess, but his unselfishness — if you can believe that — that garnered rave reviews in the crowded visitors locker room, his coach and teammates echoing the sentiment of a road crowd that made the Knicks feel at home with multiple "M-V-P" chants during the win.
"He’s an MVP guy," Knicks coach Mike Woodson said. "He’s playing at such a high level. He got double-teamed and then sacrificed the ball when that happened. To me that says a lot. He’s got to do that, and I think guys around him, he trusts those guys to make shots."
Once — and perhaps still — regarded as one of the league’s most notorious ball-hogs, Anthony took his share of shots against the Nets (11-9), knocking down 15 of 24. But with the game on the line, Anthony let his comrades take over, a marked deviation from the approach fans have grown accustomed to seeing from one of the NBA’s top volume shooters.
Anthony had only three assists Tuesday, but he was noticeably eager to pass when the situation warranted it, and never did his deference pay off more than on the Knicks’ final offensive possession. With the score tied 97-97 after a Joe Johnson floater with 1:11 to go, Brooklyn locked down on Anthony, doubling him when he touched the ball.
Rather than force a tough shot, Anthony became a decoy on the play and allowed J.R. Smith to take a would-be game-winning 3. Smith missed, but Tyson Chandler tipped the carom out to Anthony, who, again, initiated the offense rather than try to add to his highest scoring total since a 50-point game against Houston just two weeks before being traded east.
After multiple passes, the ball ended up in the hands of a wide-open Jason Kidd, who nailed a 3 from the wing — his sixth 3-pointer of the game — sticking out his leg and drawing a foul on fellow old-timer Jerry Stackhouse on the way down. Kidd missed the free throw and the chance to make it a four-point game with 24 seconds left, but Gerald Wallace and Deron Williams each missed 3s on the other end of the floor, and New York escaped with the win.
"When they doubled ‘Melo, we all had practiced that someone was going to get a wide-open look, and then Ray (Felton) made a great pass," Kidd said. "I talked to Ray about it a little bit and (told him), ‘If you get in trouble, I’ll be open.’"
The game may have come down to ‘Melo passing on a chance to be a hero, but New York would have never been in a position to win without Anthony’s best performance since a two-game stretch last April against Miami and Boston, when Anthony averaged 38.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists, including a triple-double against the Celtics.
Things couldn’t have started much worse for the Knicks, who were looking to redeem themselves after an overtime loss to the Nets in Brooklyn on Nov. 26. Brooklyn started the game 9-of-11 from the floor to New York’s 2-of-14 and took a 21-5 lead with 4:23 left in the first quarter. Anthony scored a team-high eight points on 3-of-7 shooting in the frame, but New York still trailed 30-16 after one.
"It was almost like we spotted them 30 points in that first quarter," Anthony said. "We came out with low energy, and it seemed like we weren’t into the game."
In the second, however, ‘Melo started to heat up, and as he did, New York began to rally.
After a four-minute breather to start the second, Anthony checked back in with the Knicks trailing 39-23 with 8:00 left and went on to score 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting, including a 3-of-4 mark from 3. Anthony scored 11 of those points after a Wallace layup gave Brooklyn a 47-31 lead with 4:49 left in the period, and New York held the Nets to 2-of-6 shooting and forced two turnovers down the stretch.
"Tonight was just one of those games where we had to dig ourselves out of a hole from the first quarter and just settle down, keep our composure and keep fighting," Anthony said. "Every time we went to a timeout everybody was saying, ‘Just don’t worry about it. One step at a time, one play at a time, they’re going to let us back in,’ and they did that."
A 7-0 Knicks run that spanned from the end of the second quarter to start the third gave New York its first lead of the game at 54-53, but the Nets would run the lead back to 10 later in the period. The Knicks trailed 79-74 heading into the final frame, but, for the second time, Anthony took over, scoring 15 points on 5-of-6 shooting before passing up the final shots to Smith and Kidd.
"I figured the way he was going offensively, that he would get us over the hump," said Chandler, who also referred to Anthony as the "frontrunner" for MVP — a tag Anthony isn’t quite ready to place on himself.
"We’re not even through December yet," Anthony said when asked about his MVP resume through 21 games. "It’s still early for us; it’s still early for me. We’re still getting better as a team, still learning how to play basketball and how to win tough games like this. At the end of the season, if that’s it, then we’ll see."
Should Anthony secure his first MVP award — and that’s still a long way from being a reality — he’ll have to beat out the usual suspects, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, for the crown, and the best way ‘Melo can separate himself from the pack is by winning.
Anthony has proven he can score with anyone when he wants to, and he showed it again Tuesday night. But his willingness to let someone else hold the rock if that’s the best option for his team has helped him shake his reputation of a flow-stopper on offense and speaks volumes of his development as a leader — and may be what puts him, and the Knicks, over the hump.
"He’s done everything that’s been asked of him, and I think sometimes he’s misread," Woodson said. "This young man wants to win in the worst way, and he’s playing just like that."