NEW YORK – On a night when the New York Knicks honored some of their great former players of the past six decades during the their third annual Legends’ Night, New York’s newest star acquisition fittingly led the way to a victory in his first game as a Knick.
After more than 7½ seasons as a Denver Nugget, forward Carmelo Anthony hopes to someday retire as a Knick and ultimately accept a tribute similar to what former Knick greats Harry Gallatin, Dick Barnett, Earl Monroe, Mark Jackson, John Starks, and Allan Houston received at halftime on Wednesday night before a sellout crowd of 19,763 at Madison Square Garden.
Although it wasn’t an ideal first performance, and Knick guards Toney Douglas and Chauncey Billups nearly stole the show, Anthony (10-25 FG) scored a game-high-tying 27 points and grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds to lead his new squad to 114-108 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks (22-35).
Seven months after six-time all-star forward Amar’e Stoudemire (third in scoring in the NBA this season) signed with the Knicks (29-26) as a free agent, Anthony (a four-time all-star and tied for fifth in scoring in the league this year) is thought to provide a solid one-two punch alongside Stoudemire as New York continues on its road back toward becoming an NBA title contender after a decade of irrelevancy.
For a while though, it was surprisingly two members of the Knicks’ backcourt who outshined New York’s two frontcourt stars.
The Knicks’ brand new point guard, Billups (21 points, 12-12 FT, 8 assists, 2 turnovers, 6 rebounds, 2 steals) – who came with Anthony to New York in a blockbuster trade from Denver on Monday night – and his backup, Douglas (23 points, 10-12 FG, 3-5 3-pt. FG) led the Knicks for the first the quarters before Anthony finished things off with 11 fourth-quarter points, including a pair of clutch shots in the final two minutes.
A humble Douglas, in his second year, said he “didn’t steal the show,” while adding, “It’s a team game. That’s just my teammates opening things up for me, Amar’e, Carmelo, and Chauncey… everybody was so focused on Amar’e and Carmelo, so I just had to do my job – knock down shots, play defense… and play with energy.”
Douglas said of Billups, “I’m looking forward to learning a lot from him. He actually helped out a lot during my rookie year. When we were playing against each other, he was telling me what I was doing [well] and what I could do better. Towards the end of the game, I actually took his advice. He’s a great guy, a great person, and a great basketball player.”
Billups a 1997 first-round pick, five-time all-star, and former NBA champion (with Detroit in 2004, when he earned an NBA finals MVP award) playing in his fifteenth season, with his sixth team after leaving his native city of Denver, led by example early on during his Knick debut, with four of the Knicks’ six first-quarter assists.
Anthony and Billups scored their first points of in a Knick uniform (which was a throwback road blue on New York’s home floor, in honor of Legends’ night) back-to-back, as Anthony scored on a putback 2:24 into the game, and 22 seconds later, Billups drained a right-wing three-pointer in transition, to give the Knicks a 9-4 lead.
After a Stoudemire three-point play gave the Knicks a 12-6 edge, Anthony took a pass from Billups and scored on a beautiful drive down the lane to finish a fast break. He then sank a free throw to complete his first three-point play as a Knick, to give New York a 20-10 advantage, with 5:44 remaining in the opening period.
The Bucks cut that lead in half, but a Douglas three-pointer gave New York a 33-24 lead after the first quarter.
The Knicks extended that advantage to a game-high 37-26 margin as Anthony finished another fast break with a dunk, 49 seconds into the second period.
But, Milwaukee answered with a 19-10 run, to close to within 47-45 with 4:20 left in the half.
New York built its lead back to 58-53 on a Billups free throw, but only took a slim 59-57 advantage into the locker room at halftime.
The Bucks scored the first five points of the second half, but a driving layup by Billups gave the Knicks the lead for good, 63-62, with 10:10 left in the third quarter.
A 7-2 Knicks’ run put New York 70-64, but guard John Salmons (team-high 27 points) made a three-pointer to bring Milwaukee back to within 70-69.
Billups then scored five points during a 7-1 run to extend the Knicks’ lead to 77-70.
The Bucks closed to within two points twice thereafter, but Douglas scored the final five points of the quarter on a 14-foot jumper and a left-wing three-pointer to give the Knicks an 86-79 lead heading into the final period.
A pull-up, transition, right-wing three-pointer by Anthony extended New York’s lead to 91-82, forcing a Bucks’ timeout with 8:22 left in the game.
Milwaukee however, pulled to within 93-91 on a 9-2 spurt and the Bucks trailed just 99-96 with less than four minutes left.
But, Douglas made a three-pointer with 3:07 remaining to put New York ahead 102-96, and Milwaukee could never get closer than four points the rest of the way.
The Knicks took a 106-100 lead on a driving dunk by Anthony with 1:18 left, and then, Anthony iced the game on a reverse, spinning, seven-foot jumper in the paint, to put New York up 108-102, with 26.8 seconds to go.
Anthony was serenaded with “Melo!” chants as he made two free throws to give the Knicks a 112-106 lead with 11.4 seconds remaining, and the crowd then broke into “Chauncey Billups!” chants as Billups, the NBA’s second-leading free throw shooter this season (92.3%), sank a pair of foul shots to close the scoring with five seconds left.
For Anthony and Billups, it was their first taste of the type adoration that Stoudemire has heard all season. Stoudemire again heard familiar “MVP!” chants despite being held to 19 points (seven below his season average) on just 13 field goal attempts (six less than his average this year) before fouling out with 1:01 left.
Stoudemire, who last week, was the Knicks’ first all-star starter since 1992, and who is no longer forced to shoulder quite the burden he had very successfully embraced this season, is confident that the Knicks’ moves this week have New York further pointed in the right direction.
“We definitely wanted to build a team to compete for a title. I think that bringing in the pieces that we did, is definitely a great step towards that.”
Knicks’ head coach Mike D’Antoni meanwhile, was pleased with what he saw from his team in its first game since its most recent retooling.
“There were a lot of good parts tonight, that’s for sure,” he said, while being impressed with Anthony’s performance, saying, “If you drop him in any playground in the world, he’ll put up [something like tonight], 27 points and 10 rebounds. That’s what he does for a living and he does it well.”
After a whirlwind start to the week, and especially the end of a period of several months of uncertainty regarding Anthony’s career, both Billups and Anthony were relieved to finally play their first game as Knicks.
“I’m from [Denver],” said Billups, “So, it’s not easy to get a call and go home and face your kids and say ‘Daddy’s leaving.’ [But], I’m definitely excited about being a Knick… Being able to get out there on the floor, it’s good… where we let everything else in the world go.” He added, “For the fans to embrace me and Carmelo the way they did, it just felt good.”
Anthony, who tied Barnett for the third most points in a Knick debut (behind Allan Houston’s 28 points in 1996 and Keith Van Horn’s 29 points in 2003), said the time since the trade was “hectic” and a “rollercoaster.”
But, the Garden crowd made their new star feel at ease. Anthony said, “For the fans to react they way they did, was exciting. I ever experienced anything like that before. Running out of the tunnel… and the crowd just going nuts out there. I will always remember this [night].”
He added, “I was just glad I got this game out of my system. These last two days have been crazy for me. I have been working on no sleep. Just the excitement of this whole thing going down… getting this ‘W’ really meant a lot to me.”
With Anthony (and, at least for now, with Billups) being added to Stoudemire as the foundation of New York’s future, the Knicks are hoping there will be a lot more of those ‘W’s’ in store.
The Knicks, who are trying to end a franchise-worst playoff drought of nine straight seasons, have already matched their win total from last season and are currently in the sixth spot in the Eastern conference playoff race.
Next up, New York takes a three-game win streak on a three-game road trip which begins in Cleveland on Friday night, before winding through Miami on Sunday, and Orlando on Tuesday.
The Knicks then return home on Wednesday against New Orleans, when they’ll get another look at Hornets’ star point guard Chris Paul, who hinted at Anthony’s July wedding in New York, that he might form a “Big Three” in the Big Apple, along with Anthony and Stoudemire after Paul becomes a free agent following next season.