MIAMI – The game time on the box score read 2 hours, 23 minutes. With that in mind, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony were best of friends Wednesday for 21 hours, 37 minutes.
When the ball is thrown up, it all changes.
“Our friendship goes beyond basketball, but, during the game, there’s really no friends,” Miami’s James said before he faced off against New York’s Anthony, his counterpart at small forward.
The two went at each other with zest in a spicy duel at AmericanAirlines Arena. In the Heat’s 106-94 win, which closed out a 4-1 win in an East first-round series, Anthony scored 35 points and James had 29. It would figure both finished the series having averaged 27.8 points.
When the final buzzer sounded and the two could go back to being friends, it was fitting the first thing James did was seek out Anthony to give him a big hug. What did he say to him?
“Brotherly love, I guess,” responded James, whose Heat advance to face Indiana in an East semifinal starting Sunday in Miami.
Big-time bust Darko Milicic going No. 2 by Detroit might have messed it up as far as how the history books read, but James and Anthony were regarded by most as the two best players taken in the 2003 draft. James went No. 1 to Cleveland and Anthony No. 3 to Denver.
Because they played in different conferences and never met more than twice in a season for seven years, the rivalry never fully blossomed. But after James went to Miami in July 2010 and Anthony joined him in the East with New York in February 2011, it looked as if it finally might really get going.
James and Anthony met five times in a week and half. It used to take them 2 ½ years to play that much.
“I’ve known LeBron since I was in high school,” Anthony said. “It’s always good to play against him, to play against a guy that’s going to bring the best out of you.”
The two first met at a 2001 summer hoops session in Colorado Springs, Colo., and first faced each other in high school in February 2002, when Anthony was a senior at Virginia’s Oak Hill and James a junior at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio. They were teammates in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics and have both played against each other and been teammates in NBA All-Star Games.
“It’s always special any time we are on the court together period, the All-Star Game or the Olympics or the first time competing in the postseason,” James said. “He’s one of the best friends that I have. It was great to finally go through a playoff series against him. He’s one of the best players we have in this league and one of the biggest competitors we have in this league.”
Still, Anthony always has been in James’ shadow. He was second behind him in voting for Rookie of the Year, trails him in MVPs 2-0 (soon to be 3-0) and only once has been past the first round of the playoffs while James has been to two Finals and is quite possibly headed to a third.
Anthony so much wants to get into James’ territory that he copied him. Many viewed Anthony’s forcing of a trade last year from Denver to New York as a desire to form a northern version of the Big Three.
The Knicks’ trio of Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler pales in comparison to Miami’s one of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. But don’t call Anthony the one who’s dragging it down for the Knicks.
“Anthony is exactly what we expected, a top-three tough cover in this league,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Now that we can remove ourselves from the series, I don’t know how you can stop that guy… He deserves the respect that we gave him, which was the whole kitchen sink.”
In the last two games, the Heat could have thrown a refrigerator at Anthony and had trouble stopping him. He scored 41 points in Game 4 before Wednesday’s effort, which came on 15-of-31 shooting. With nobody else on an injury-ravaged team scoring more than 14 points, the Knicks had no chance.
Meanwhile, James, who had seven assists, got ample help. Bosh and Wade both scored 19 points.
The game wasn’t too close, with Miami never leading by less than eight in the second half. Still, it was a joy watching the two small forwards go back and forth throughout the night.
“It’s fun to see them compete against each other,” Heat swingman Mike Miller said. “It’s a good ticket to have.”
It also was good training for James as the Heat move on in the playoffs. Just listen to Wade, who also has a lengthy relationship with both James and Anthony, having been the No. 5 pick in 2003 and also playing on the 2004 and 2008 Olympic teams.
“They’ve been running into each other for a long time,” Wade said about the two. “You can see it on both of their faces, they love it, the competitive nature of them both. As a teammate, I enjoy it because I know Melo is going to push LeBron, he’s going to challenge him and you need that. Because you go through these playoffs, you’ll be challenged at different times mentally to see how you can come back from it. So I thought it was a great match-up for (James) for the first round. (Anthony is) one of the toughest one-on-one covers that he’s going to face in the NBA.”
It would have been interesting to see if Anthony still would have been able to drill that key last-minute 3-pointer in New York’s 89-87 Game 4 win had James, rather than Shane Battier, been on them. But perhaps there will be some future meetings in the playoffs.
Anthony seems to think so.
“In the future, I feel good about competing with the top teams in the Eastern Conference,” Anthony said. “I do consider our team being up there, top three, top four teams in the East. We just got to get better and go from there.”
For now, even if he did outscore him Wednesday, Anthony remains in the shadow of his good buddy.