NEW YORK – This wasn’t exactly how New York Knicks star forward Carmelo Anthony envisioned things before meeting his old team again.
While some ex-Knicks have helped the Denver Nuggets (11-5) to the second best record in the western conference, Anthony’s current Knicks (6-9) have severely underachieved this season.
New York suffered its latest inexplicable defeat before a disapproving sellout crowd of 19,763 at Madison Square Garden on Friday night, as guard Brandon Jennings, whom the Knicks (6-9) passed over in the 2009 NBA draft, scored a season-high 36 points to lead the Milwaukee Bucks (5-9) to a surprising 100-86 victory.
The Bucks’ first road win in nine tries this season, and just their third in their past 11 games overall, was the latest among several puzzling home losses to losing teams for the Knicks, who with the addition of center Tyson Chandler, alongside Anthony and forward Amar’e Stoudemire, were expected to be eastern conference contenders, with one of the NBA’s best front lines this season.
So far, however, the Knicks have looked more like they’ll be competing in next year’s draft lottery, having also lost at home to the likes of Toronto (4-12), Charlotte (3-12), and Phoenix (6-9), the former team of both Stoudemire and Knicks head coach Mike D’Antoni.
There won’t be much time for the Knicks to dwell on what’s gone wrong for them, as Denver, where Anthony spent the first seven-plus years of his NBA career as one of the league’s premier scorers, will visit MSG on Saturday night, in the first game between the Knicks and Nuggets since Anthony was traded from Denver to New York in a blockbuster deal last February.
The Knicks didn’t seem to be considering any lessons learned from their previous disappointing losses anyway, as they once again lacked intensity and focus right from the start.
Milwaukee made six of its first nine shots from the field and used a 7-0 run to jump to an 11-6 lead on a dunk by center Andrew Bogut (11 points) 2:58 into the game.
That lead was extended to 23-14 on another dunk, as Jennings recorded the fourth of his five assists on a driving slam by guard Carlos Delfino (9 points) with 4:17 left in the opening quarter.
Anthony pulled New York back to within four points with a layup and a three-pointer before the teams traded 4-0 runs to close the period with Milwaukee ahead, 27-23.
After leading all scorers with 13 points while playing the entire first quarter, Anthony was held scoreless as he played just under half of the second period.
But, the Knicks neutralized 12 points from Jennings, five from reserve forward Drew Gooden (10 points, team-high 11 rebounds), and four points by forward Shaun Livingston (season-high 18 points) in the second quarter with eight points from forward Landry Fields (10 total points), seven by Stoudemire (15 total points, 11 rebounds), and five points from Chandler (11 points, game-high 12 rebounds) to stay within 55-51 by halftime, after New York twice grabbed a three-point lead in the second quarter.
In the third quarter, Anthony woke up again with nine points, but only two other Knicks scored in the period as Milwaukee outscored New York 24-16, behind another 11 points from Jennings, to lead 79-67 heading into the final quarter.
The slow-moving Knicks looked like they were stuck in quicksand while unsuccessfully trying to stay with the quick Jennings, who torched New York whether getting to the hoop or drilling shots from behind the three-point arc, where the former first-round pick made 6 of 12 shots, as he made 15 of 26 field goals overall.
Knicks’ head coach Mike D’Antoni noted, “It looks like our legs are deader than the other guys’. It looks like they’re running circles around us a lot of times. I can’t explain it.”
Rookie point guard Iman Shumpert (4 points), who missed all five of his field goal attempts in 30 minutes, sank two free throws to cut the Bucks’ lead to 79-69 with 10:28 left in the game, but the Knicks missed their next six shots and committed five of their 24 turnovers before Chandler made a pair of free throws nearly five minutes later, to trim Milwaukee’s lead to 86-71 with 5:41 remaining. New York could get no closer than nine points the rest of the way.
Holding a sizable advantage from the free throw line, the Knicks made 26 of 33 foul shots, with Anthony sinking 11 of 13 free throws, and Chandler dropping 7 of 8 from the charity stripe. In contrast, the Bucks shot 14-for-20 from the foul line.
It was a different story from the floor however, where New York made just ten of 30 second-half field goal attempts to finish the game shooting a dismal 37 percent (27-for-73). The Bucks meanwhile, made 47.6 percent (39 of 82) of their field goal attempts.
“We are just not playing well,” D’Antoni said. “Offensively, we are a wreck… we have to play much more aggressively and get through this.”
“I think guys are getting the ball in the right position and in the right spots, but we’re just having a hard time making shots right now,” Anthony said.
Himself included. Although he scored just one point less than Jennings, 13 of Anthony’s points came in the final quarter, when the game was already well in hand for Milwaukee. The Knicks’ leading scorer also made just 11 of 26 shots from the floor, and started the game a meager 7-for-21 while playing with a slightly injured wrist.
“I don’t want to use that as an excuse,” Anthony said. “I am playing and doing what I can do out there. Hopefully the wrist heals and it gets better.”
Jennings credited Delfino with making Anthony work for his points, saying, “Fino did a good job on Melo. He played a big part in our victory.”
As did Jennings’ motivation to make the Knicks pay for not drafting him and not letting him come to a city in which he wanted to play.
“I love [New York] City,” he said. “It is the mecca of basketball. I am always playing basketball [in New York] in the summer. It is not just the Garden, it is the whole city. I love the vibe.”
For the Knicks and their fans, it was an atmosphere of frustration as New York fell to 3-5 at home this season.
“It hurts losing the way we’re losing,” Anthony admitted, about two hours after “Fire D’Antoni!” chants and even, “Let’s Go Giants!” chants – as the crowd tried to focus on something more positive, such as the New York Giants’ continuing their current push to reach the Super Bowl – filled the Garden during the final quarter.
Acknowledging the fans’ criticisms, D’Antoni candidly and jokingly said, “They should boo with the way we’re playing. Half my family was probably booing.”
“They were the more physical team tonight,” Anthony said of the Bucks. “We didn’t have any intensity. They outplayed us, they outworked us… they punked us tonight. Hopefully we bounce back [next game] and we’ll be the ones doing the punking.”
That might be tough, with the way the Knicks and Nuggets are each moving in opposite directions at the moment.
Only two of the four pieces remain with Denver since the Knicks’ trade for Anthony, but one of those is Italian forward Danilo Gallinari, who was taken sixth overall by New York in 2008.
Gallinari will return to play on his old home court for the first time since the trade as the Nuggets’ second leading scorer, with 16.2 points per game, barely behind guard Ty Lawson’s 16.4 ppg.
Right behind Gallinari is Denver’s third leading scorer, Al Harrington, who is averaging 14.9 ppg after spending two very productive years with the Knicks before becoming one of the salary cap casualties that helped set up New York’s trade for Anthony a year later.
Nuggets head coach George Karl said of the New York-Denver reunions, “I think that’s one of those games that motivates itself. I don’t think I’m going to have to give a really big pep talk.”
Putting his own personal aspect of the game aside, Anthony said, “Personally, I have nothing to prove… I did a lot out there in Denver… I just want to win the basketball game and I’ll be satisfied.”
While New York seeks to halt its season-high losing skid, which came on the heels of a four-game winning streak, Denver will be looking to win for the fourth straight time and for the sixth time in its past seven games.
Tipoff at MSG is set for 7:30 pm ET on Saturday.