NEW YORK – Ever since his arrival in New York from the Denver Nuggets, forward Carmelo Anthony has (fairly or unfairly) been maligned as a selfish player who’s more concerned with scoring than winning games.
On Sunday night, he did both.
Through three quarters, Anthony had already tied the New York Knicks’ franchise record for three-pointers, and was on pace to do the same with respect to the all-time NBA record for threes.
So, how did Anthony answer his critics?
By not forcing or even taking a single three-pointer in the final quarter and leading the New York Knicks (27-15) to thrilling 106-104 win over the Atlanta Hawks (25-19) on an aggressive drive along the left blocks for a go-ahead, conventional three-point play with 12.5 seconds left at a sold Madison Square Garden.
Following that shot, the game came down to a battle of guards named Smith, with Josh Smith (20 points) being thrown off just enough on a rushed three-pointer that was contested by J.R. Smith (18 points off the bench), to miss what would have been a game-winning buzzer-beater.
“It was a good look, it just didn’t go down,” said Josh Smith.
Behind Anthony’s nearly unstoppable three-point shooting, New York finished a sizzling 57.9 percent (16-for-27) from three-point range, surpassing Atlanta’s less hot 43.5 percent (10-for-23) from that distance.
Each team shot a season-high from the field overall, and made the same amount of field goals (39), but the Hawks did so in seven fewer attempts (65) than the Knicks (72), to exceed New York’s 54.2 percent shooting with a 60 percent clip.
In doing so, Atlanta became the first NBA team (and very well might remain the only squad) this season to shoot at least that high of a percentage and still lose.
During a game that featured 22 lead changes and 14 ties, Anthony finished with a game-high 42 points and made a career-high nine threes in 12 attempts to match a trio of ex-Knicks for the most treys in club history. Toney Douglas last accomplished the feat in 2011, Latrell Sprewell did it in 2002 and 2003, and John Starks did the same in 1998.
Although he said he was unaware of tying the team mark for threes until after the game, Anthony probably knew he was close to breaking his personal record for treys, yet focused more on moving the ball to his teammates, and taking two-point shots.
While he only made 2 of his first 10 of those, Anthony sank four of his final six two-pointers and 15 of his last 24 shots overall, after missing his first four.
Point guard Raymond Felton picked up the slack for Anthony early on, with nine of his 12 points coming in the first quarter to help New York to a 27-25 edge and only its third lead after the opening quarter in 17 games.
That may not seem too vital, especially in the virtually-no-lead-is-ever-safe NBA, but the Knicks moved to 17-2 this season when holding a lead after the first period, compared to being just 10-13 when trailing after the opening frame.
Just as Anthony did with not occupying himself with records to get his team back in the win column following New York’s ugly 17-point loss in Philadelphia the night before, Felton likewise put winning above all else, even after making his first three shots from the floor and four of his first five before the second quarter.
Felton only took four more shots (making one) the rest of the way, finishing with just nine attempts from the field, about seven less than his season average of 16.1 shots (second on the Knicks only to Anthony’s 22.3 shots), while totaling a game-high 10 assists and just three turnovers.
Said a relaxed, smiling Felton at his locker, after the game, “I don’t care if I take five shots, as long as we win.”
As much as Felton helped the Knicks do that, the game’s biggest run occurred just after he went to the bench with Anthony joining him there for almost all of that stretch.
Anthony’s first made field goal was a three-pointer in the final minute of the first quarter, a shot which ignited a 16-0 surge that gave New York the game’s biggest lead, 36-25, less than three minutes into the second period.
Yet, eleven of the Knicks’ points during that spurt came at the start of the second quarter though, with Anthony resting alongside Felton.
Reserve point guard Pablo Prigioni keyed most of the run, making two three-pointers to score all six of his points, while adding three of his four assists.
However, by the time Prigioni left for Felton, New York’s lead was cut almost in half, to 40-34, and with Anthony already back in, a driving layup by point guard Jeff Teague (team-highs of 27 points and six assists) capped a 19-7 run that put the Hawks back up, 44-43.
Catching fire though, Anthony made three straight three-pointers to move the Knicks ahead, 52-47, before Atlanta scored the next five points to tie the game, 52-52, by halftime.
Scoring more than half (17 of 30) of New York’s points in the third quarter, Anthony made all five of his three-point attempts in a period that the Knicks closed on a 14-4 spurt, to lead 82-74.
That advantage was wiped out though, by a 12-4 Hawks run over the first 4½ minutes of the fourth quarter, which tied the game, 86-86.
New York went on top, 92-88 on a pair of free throws by forward Amar’e Stoudemire (18 points, game-high eight rebounds off the bench), but a three-pointer by Josh Smith tied things up again, 99-99.
With under two minutes left, Anthony was posting up and getting mauled by guard Deshawn Stevenson (15 points off the bench, team-high four three-pointers on six attempts) with no call made.
Smiling and almost laughing that off, Anthony continued to post up, and when he got the ball and faced the basket, Stevenson was finally whistled for a foul after poking Anthony in the eye.
In frustration, Anthony turned away from Stevenson and slammed the ball hard off the court and high into the air as he walked toward mid-court. As he did, he was called for a technical foul at a time when the officials should have used a little more common sense.
Forward Kyle Korver (13 points, team-high seven rebounds) made the ensuing free throw to give Atlanta a 102-101 lead, but two free throws from Stoudemire nine seconds later, moved New York ahead, 103-102.
Just eight seconds after that, an alley-oop dunk from Josh Smith to center Al Horford (16 points, six rebounds) gave the Hawks their final lead, 104-103, with 1:34 remaining.
Two missed shots and a turnover from Anthony followed, but thanks to a steal and an offensive foul drawn by J.R. Smith, Atlanta couldn’t get a shot off in that time, which set the stage for Anthony’s game-winning heroics.
Blowing right past Josh Smith out of a time out, Anthony scored on a layup and was fouled as Smith tried to recover.
“It was just a matter of not letting Josh Smith set his feet,” said Anthony. “Just catching it and going. I knew that if I could get just one step in front of him and catch him off guard, I would have a chance of getting the ball up and get the shot I wanted. I knew that he was probably banking on me holding the ball out for the last shot [with the shot clock off]… so it was just a matter of me catching and going at that point.”
With the Garden crowd chanting, “M!V!P!” as it has so often this year, Anthony then coolly made a free throw to close the scoring.
But, the game wasn’t over until the Knicks came up with one last defensive stop, forcing the ball out of the hands of Teague, who while leading the Hawks with 27 points, was a hot 9 of 14 from the floor for 23 points just past the mid-point of the third quarter. However, he was held to only one more field goal attempt and just four more points, all on free throws, thereafter.
“We drew something up to get penetration from Jeff on the pick-and-roll,” said Atlanta head coach Larry Drew of the game’s final play. “That play was designed for Jeff to come off and really attack, and he got in there and kicked out… [the Knicks] did a good job of collapsing… Josh Smith had a good look. It just didn’t go down.”
In addition to subjugating his scoring for the benefit of his team, Felton, who played the entire third period and the last 8:13 of the game, was also largely responsible for slowing Teague down over the last 1½ quarters.
“Basically, I just tried to get into him a little bit, be a little more aggressive with him,” Felton said. “He was coming out there, screening and rolling and getting to the basket. When a guy’s coming off a screen-and-roll, it’s hard to get back in front of him.”
“We had, I thought, been very effective on our pick-and-rolls throughout the game,” Drew noted.
Perhaps not down the stretch though, as Felton changed his defensive strategy against Teague.
“I just made it my thing that when [Teague came] off a screen, [I was] just going to stay with him,” Felton added.
As for the other end of the floor, the three-point shooting wasn’t the only way Anthony wrote his name into Knick lore, as he passed former Knick great Patrick Ewing and tied Richie Guerin by scoring at least 20 points for a career-high 29th consecutive game.
Further silencing some of his detractors, Anthony (who as the league’s second-leading scorer, was voted to his sixth all-star game last week) has actually reached that level in scoring in all but one game this season, and during the 35 games in which he has played, New York is 24-11 while going just 3-4 in the games he’s missed (due to injury or in one rare case, a questionable suspension).
Reflecting on his three-point exploits, Anthony said, “It’s just a matter of me taking those shots and making them… when I’m making them from the outside… it opens up the game much more for myself [and for] my teammates, and that’s what happened tonight.”
The nine threes made by Anthony may be the most in his NBA career, but playing with the league’s elite last summer, he made one more than that (in 12 attempts) when he set United States men’s Olympic teams records for threes and points (37) in a game, during a rout of Nigeria.
It was one thing for Anthony to delight MSG with a huge game, but the MSG crowd gave also gave a well-deserved and very warm reception to the true hero of the night — 11-year-old Taylor Ryan, of East Islip, New York, who sported a wide grin and waved to the crowd during a time out as she received the Sweetwater Clifton “City Spirit” Award (named after Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, the Knicks’ first African-American player) for the month of January.
Ryan was diagnosed at the age of three with Diabetes Insipidus, which had progressed into the blood disease histiocytosis. Yet, even as she was undergoing chemotherapy treatment, Ryan organized successful toy drives over the past two years that delivered nearly 1,000 toys to help touch the lives of other children facing similar circumstances. Fortunately, Ryan’s prognosis is promising.
Back to things of lesser importance, the Knicks’ win simultaneously kicked off the second half of their season and a five-game home stand, their second-longest of the year.
“Tonight was one of those ‘must wins’ especially bouncing back off that disaster yesterday in Philly,” Anthony said. “I’m glad we were able to bounce back and put that game behind us.”
Three of the last four teams New York will face during that time will have losing records, beginning with Orlando, on Wednesday night, as the Knicks start a new week two games up on Brooklyn for first place in the Atlantic Division, and just 1½ games behind defending NBA champion Miami, for supremacy on the Eastern conference.