NEW YORK — It had been clearly evident through more than half of the 2015-16 NBA season that New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony was making a concerted effort to shed a dozen years of criticism, which repeatedly accused one of the best pure scorers in basketball history of mainly being a one dimensional star incapable of lifting the play of those around him.
With the pressure of being the Knicks’ leader playing in the league’s biggest market, and with the media, fans and most importantly, Anthony’s coaching staff and team president Phil Jackson calling for Anthony to change his game — along with Anthony starting to consider his own basketball mortality, without an NBA Finals trip, at the age of 31 — Anthony has finally and willingly accepted more of a facilitator role, especially now that (unlike before) he’s playing with the kind of players he can trust.
Still, it’s one thing for Anthony to show he believes in his teammates from the opening tip right up until crunch time. The real trial, though, is seeing what he does after that moment, with a game on the line.
That’s where Anthony’s truest test of faith is demonstrated.
And if what happened down the stretch of the Knicks’ 118-111, comeback, overtime win over the Utah Jazz (18-24) at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night is any indication, consider Anthony transformed.
Even on a night when Anthony (21,793 career points) passed living legend Larry Bird for 31st on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, while scoring a game-high 30 points on very efficient 13-of-20 shooting, there were other numbers and specific instances — particularly as New York (22-22) rallied down the stretch — that illuminated just how reformed and refined Anthony’s game has become this season.
While his 20 shots were a team-high, they were tempered by the discipline and good shot selection led to Anthony taking only one shot from behind the arc while going 68.4 percent (13-for-19) from two-point range.
It was merely the latest example of a seismic change for the same player that tried a career-high 6.2 treys while leading the Knicks to their first division title in 19 years three seasons ago. Anthony is averaging two fewer 3-point attempts this season, while dishing out as many as four assists per game for the first time in his career.
Fittingly, in a way that Bird was known for his own great all-around team play during a brilliant Hall of Fame career, Anthony (no longer with that old crunch time voice in his head influencing him to shoot first and avert post-game questions later) flashed several impressive passes against the Jazz, each one better than the next to help the Knicks avenge their worst loss of the season (point-wise, New York’s 27-point defeat in Chicago on Jan. 1 was actually their largest loss this year, but the Knicks were in that game until the worst fourth quarter in franchise history — unlike a 21-point drubbing they suffered in Utah on Dec. 9. when New York trailed 38-11 after 14:23, then 70-37 early in the third quarter, and 100-71 with five minutes left).
Learning how to win a lot more than last year, the Knicks made the Jazz a sixth team that New York has paid back with a victory after losing to a team in the previous meeting this season.
Much of that culture change has to do with Anthony’s leadership both on the floor and in the locker room.
Addressing the Knicks’ ability to close out close games (after New York, which won its sixth straight home game and eight of its past nine at MSG, following a double overtime win over Philadelphia at home on Sunday), rookie sensation, forward Kristaps Porzingis (whose jersey, it was announced before the game, is already the fourth best-selling among NBA fans), said, “I think Melo’s setting a great example for us, how strong, mentally, we’ve got to be in those situations, and to have that energy to push through those overtimes and get those wins… I think a big part of why we’re able to [have that approach] and win is because of him.”
Leading the Knicks in scoring for a 29th time this season against Utah was expected.
What wasn’t, at the beginning of the year, was Anthony already leading New York in assists by now, in a 17th game this season.
This time, it was a season-high-tying nine assists for Anthony, which was six more than any other Knick and four more than any Utah player recorded.
Of particular note, was that five of Anthony’s nine assists came after the third quarter, as he tallied four big assists in the fourth quarter, while New York erased a 76-68 deficit going into the period, and another key assist in overtime.
Further showing a departure from his former Iso-Melo self, Anthony also had no problem with taking a mere one shot in the extra session while allowing reserve forward Derrick Williams to steal the spotlight with seven of the Knicks’ 19 points in overtime.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Anthony made a tough drive along the right baseline before feeding Williams for a monster dunk that brought the house down and New York to within 81-80.
Of course, the Knicks’ rally wasn’t exclusively about Anthony setting others up.
On the next possession, he powered though traffic for a dunk that gave New York its first lead since 9-8, at 81-80.
A little over a minute later, Anthony found Porzingis at the top of the 3-point line for a go-ahead trey that put the Knicks up, 87-86, before he made two great cross-court passes — first to guard Arron Afflalo (14 points) for a right-wing 3-pointer that made it 92-88, with 1:01 left in regulation; and moments later, to reserve guard Langston Galloway (nine points), for a 3-pointer from nearly the same spot, to extend New York’s lead to 95-90, with 36.2 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
“It’s the winning mindset,” Afflalo said in describing Anthony’s evolution. “Not more or less the physical act of passing, but what are you thinking about coming into the game? Is it about scoring points or making winning plays?
“He’s one of the greatest scorers to ever play this game, and as you saw tonight, his presence alone would draw defenses in. His willingness to just find that open guy and trust that [his] teammate is going to make the shot… I think you’re seeing that more and more as he develops as a person and as he gets up in his career.”
But that includes maintaining the balance of scoring, to go along with Anthony’s still newfound facilitating.
When Utah quickly responded with its own trey, Anthony threw down another dunk to give the Knicks a 97-93 advantage, with 15.7 seconds left in the period. That seemed safe until a Porzingis foul at the 3-point line allowed forward Gordon Heyward to send the game into overtime with a trio of free throws.
“I was still going to be aggressive down the stretch anyway, but tonight, I was being aggressive [yet] picking my spots,” Anthony said. They started double-teaming [me] in the fourth [quarter] and in overtime. D-Will was on the backside one time, Arron was on the backside [another time] and K.P. was trailing on a couple plays. So those are simple plays that you kinda have to make. That doesn’t take anything away from me being aggressive out there.”
After Anthony tied Bird, and the game (at 101-apeice) with a smooth fadeaway jumper, his final assist was a terrific cross-court laser from the left blocks, to Williams, who from near the right corner, drained a 3-pointer with 2:25 remaining, to put New York up for good, 106-103.
With a little over minute left, Williams drew chants of his name from the Garden crowd when he showed incredible resolve to singlehandedly battle the Jazz at the basket, tipping the ball four times, before finally converting a very hard-fought 3-point play.
The heretofore, perhaps incorrectly and unfairly labeled “Me First” Anthony yelled and pumped both fists in celebration of Williams’ play.
Following the win, head coach Derek Fisher noted that Anthony’s new penchant for passing has grown as Anthony’s teammates have more frequently found the spots they have needed to be at on the floor.
“As we improve in our [floor] spacing, who’s open is more obvious,” Fisher said. “To me, [Anthony is] a more willing passer than he’s been given credit for, but if you’re playing isolation basketball, your spacing is an issue. The more we can play with good spacing, [the more] I think he’ll make the right passes.”
Fisher went further in detailing how he believes Anthony can strive even further to expand his all-around game offensively, while also improving his defense (as Anthony has this season, although there’s still more work to be done in that area as well).
“He has that ability,” Fisher said. “All the facets of the game, he’s capable of being really, really good, at a high level — scoring, rebounding and sharing the ball. He showed a level of trust in his teammates that’s required for us to be successful, and the more his teammates can trust themselves to step into those moments to take and make those shots, and not be afraid of that moment, that builds the trust as a unit that we’re going to need down the stretch of these games.
“Obviously, he’s continuing to rise. The interesting thing for Melo is that there’s this land of opportunity out there that he has not quite accessed yet… I’m hopeful that the product is still unfinished. He’s a prolific scorer, no doubt about it, but I think the other facets of the game, he’s capable of dominating in as well. Those are the parts that will elevate him and our team.”
For now, Anthony is focusing on keeping things simple.
“I just try to take what the game is giving me,” he said. “Whatever that may be, if it calls for me to do certain things, depending on the night, that’s what I’m going to do… I’m just playing in the flow of the game.
“[I’m] just believing in everybody out there, swinging the ball and getting somebody an open shot. I’ll take that.”
So will the Knicks and their fans, as Anthony keeps passing the ball along with more tests.