NEW YORK – One night after Madison Square Garden’s epic, star-studded music concert to benefit local Hurricane Sandy victims, the NBA’s top two scorers squared off against each other with forward Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks (17-5) putting on their own show for a sold out Garden crowd in a 116-107 victory over Kobe Bryant’s struggling Los Angeles Lakers (9-14) and former Knick coach Mike D’Antoni on Thursday night.
Falling just two points shy of a club record set by ex-Knicks Willis Reed and Allan Houston, Anthony scored a career-high 22 first-quarter points to help New York to a 41-27 lead after the opening period. He finished with a team-high 30 points before leaving for good with a sprained left ankle midway through the third quarter.
“I just took a hard fall,” Anthony said, describing the hard foul he took under the basket by Los Angeles center Dwight Howard (20 points, seven rebounds), with 6:54 left in the third quarter and the Knicks leading 76-61.
After making one of two free throws, Anthony left the floor 13 seconds later and did not return. “It was one of them awkward falls,” Anthony continued. “It was the way I landed on the floor,” which was with his left calf bending under his left thigh after his ankle gave out. “[I’m] real sore right now, ankle, knee, hip,” said Anthony, whose status is day-to-day.
Anthony (27.9 points per game) was slightly outscored by fellow superstar Kobe Bryant (29.3 points per game), who despite pouring in a game-high 31 points while making as many field goals (10) as Anthony, did so while taking nine more shots (24-15) and playing nearly twice as many minutes (44:02 –22:55).
“He was incredible,” said head coach Mike Woodson of Anthony. “He played 22 minutes and had 30 points. I’d say that is incredible.”
Bryant, a good friend and teammate of Anthony on last summer’s gold medal-winning United States Olympic team, agreed with Woodson, saying, “Melo was sensational.”
He also playfully mocked the media while noting the marked in improvement in Anthony’s ability to be more of a team player and helping the Knicks win instead of simply putting up big scoring numbers.
Attacking the media for criticizing Anthony for being a selfish player last season, Bryant mentioned the absurdity of the media questioning whether a perennial all-star like Anthony could fit his game in with ex-Knick Jermey Lin, who burst on the NBA scene out of nowhere for just a few weeks, instead of the other way around.
“Now, you guys celebrate him for doing what he’s always done,” Bryant said. “It’s funny.”
Early on, an ultra-focused Anthony couldn’t be stopped – not that Los Angeles is accustomed to slowing down anyone under D’Antoni, a continued problem that likewise plagued the coach when he was with the Knicks for nearly four seasons before officially resigning (but really, being forced out) in favor of Woodson last season.
Coming out firing, Anthony made his first three shots from the floor – all threes – while staking New York to an 11-2 lead just 2:24 into the game.
“I was zoned in, I was locked in,” said the NBA’s leading scorer in the first quarter this season. “Tonight was one of those games where I had that feeling. I wanted to get it going and I had that feeling going early in the game. My teammates were feeding off of that.”
As Bryant (13 first-period points) also heated up, the Lakers cut the Knicks’ advantage to five points on three occasions during the first quarter, but with Anthony making eight of nine shots in the period, New York twice went up by as many as 16 points in the frame.
Reserve forwards Steve Novak (12 points) and Rasheed Wallace (eight points) each made a pair of threes to highlight a 17-5 run that ballooned the Knicks’ lead to a game-high 58-32 while Anthony was resting on the bench at the start of the second quarter.
Los Angeles answered with a 15-4 spurt, but New York still held a sizable 68-49 lead at halftime after finishing the half shooting a sizzling 61.4 percent (27 of 44) from the field, which was actually down more than a dozen percentage points from the ridiculous 73.9 percent (17-for-23) the Knicks shot during a first quarter in which they were guarded less tightly than in their pre-game shoot-around.
Although D’Antoni’s Knick teams weren’t as deep or talented as the Knicks’ current roster, his coaching style, with a lack of emphasis on defense, was a large part of why things never worked out for him in New York, where the coach was 121-167 (.420) following much regular season success and two conference finals appearances during his five years in Phoenix.
It’s also why inferior opponents often came into MSG and left with victories over D’Antoni’s Knicks.
Following the game, D’Antoni’s comments about the Los Angeles’ inability to slow down New York’s offense sounded like a repeat of the many times over the previous four years when he sat in the same building, trying to explain why the Knicks had trouble stopping opponents from scoring in bunches.
“We had trouble in the first half with pick-and-rolls… [and] trying to stay with the shooters,” D’Antoni said. “We have a lot of things to work on… we have to buckle down [defensively].”
Knick fans, widely considered some of the most basketball savvy in the league, gave D’Antoni a chilly reception that didn’t seem to faze him. “Boos are boos, and I didn’t expect anything different,” he said.
In sharp contrast to D’Antoni’s philosophies, the defensive-minded Woodson, a former Knick first-round draft pick who guided New York to an 18-6 record and a playoff appearance after D’Antoni left the Knicks with an 18-24 mark last season, has put a premium on making stops, sharing the basketball offensively, keeping turnovers down and making the Garden among the toughest places in the league for visiting teams to play.
Thus far, Woodson’s team has accomplished all of the above with a good deal of success. New York, which is setting the pace with the best record in the Eastern conference this year, is 35-11 under Woodson, including 20-1 at MSG and remains the NBA’s only unblemished team at home (9-0) this season, while ranking among the best in the league in scoring (fifth) and points allowed (tenth). The Knicks also lead the NBA in committing the fewest turnovers, which has translated to a league-best 1.84 assists-to-turnovers ratio.
Against Los Angeles, New York had 25 assists and just six turnovers, while the Lakers had 13 of each.
Meanwhile, D’Antoni fell to a dismal 4-9 since taking over for assistant Bernie Bickerstaff, who was 4-1 as the Lakers’ interim head coach following Los Angeles’ 1-4 start to the season and a subsequent firing of head coach Mike Brown.
New York twice pushed its lead to 22 points late in the third quarter and led by its halftime margin of 19 points before the Lakers got within 93-80 after ending the period on a 6-0 run that was capped by four points from Bryant, who grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds while handing out a team-high six assists.
The Knicks led 102-86 on a jumper by point guard Raymond Felton (19 points, eight assists, one turnover) with 8:45 remaining, but forward Metta World Peace (23 points, six rebounds) scored the next seven Laker points during a 13-4 run that ended with Bryant making a left-corner three to get Los Angeles within 106-99 with 4:47 left.
That basket drew a mild roar from plenty of Laker and Bryant fans, but some louder ovations from the Knick faithful came seconds later, when center Tyson Chandler (18 points) threw down an alley oop dunk on a pass from Felton before reserve guard J.R. Smith (18 points) made a three-pointer that pushed New York’s lead to 111-99 and forced a time out by D’Antoni.
A three-point play by World Peace cut that margin in half, 113-107, with 1:27 to go, but a couple of offensive rebounds by Chandler led to point guard Jason Kidd (five points, five assists, one turnover) being able to do his best Curly Neal impersonation and take a few key seconds off of the clock with Bryant chasing him along the right wing.
D’Antoni’s return continued an Italian homecoming of sorts, as it came four days after the Knicks beat the Denver Nuggets and forward Danilo Gallinari, who was drafted sixth overall by New York in 2008.
As part of a larger reunion, Lin and the Houston Rockets will visit MSG on Monday night during the third game of a six-game Knick homestand after New York hosts Cleveland (5-18) on Saturday night.