Over his 14-year NBA career, New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony has certainly had his share of good shooting performances end with frustratingly disappointing losses.
That’s particularly true of Anthony’s time in New York, when he has often lacked the requisite help a star needs to lead his team to victory.
Yet if what happened Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden proves to be a good indicator for the future, Anthony is about to finally start receiving the support he needs on a far more consistent basis — even when the nine-time All-Star doesn’t have it going himself.
As Anthony scored an inefficient 17 points on 7-for-22 shooting, missed all three of his fourth-quarter shots and misfired on 12 of 14 attempts in the second half, all while failing to get to the free throw line, several other Knicks stepped up to carry themselves New York’s to its fifth straight home win — 107-103, over the Portland Trailblazers (8-8) — and back to the .500 mark (7-7).
With starting center Joakim Noah sitting out (nursing an illness), blossoming second-year star forward Kristaps Porzingis posted his second career 30-point game (each coming in the last four), taking just one more shot than Anthony, but making six more, to score 31 points while grabbing a team-high nine rebounds.
Meanwhile, the Knicks’ two-man point guard tandem, starter Derrick Rose (18 points, five assists, one turnover) and backup Brandon Jennings (game-high 11 assists and no turnovers in just over 22 minutes), mostly offset the Trailblazers’ normally explosive starting backcourt of Damian Lillard (22 points, six assists, five rebounds) and C. J. McCollum (16 points, five assists, five rebounds).
“He was aggressive,” Anthony said of Rose. “That is the Derrick I want and I need.”
Anthony also praised Jennings, saying, “He got us going defensively, offensively, he changed the pace of the game. I think we followed his energy and his momentum.”
Head coach Jeff Hornacek added of Jennings, “He doesn’t have to score to have an impact on the game. His impact is activity. He picks up the [second unit]. He gets the energy going with the group he’s out there with, and when he runs, guys are looking for that open spot because they know they’re going to get the ball from him.
“Having a guy that comes in off the bench and can provide 11 assists, I don’t think that happens very often. The guy’s a great player… we feel confident that when he has the ball, that he’s going to make a play for us.”
Recalling the only scoreless game of his young career to date (during a two-point Knicks win in Portland last December), Porzingis noted a pre-game conversation with Jennings.
“[Jennings] knew I had a zero game last season, against [Portland] so he told me he was going to get me the ball and he found me out there,” Porzingis said. “He’s always creating, looking for me, looking for his teammates. He’s a pass-first guard. That’s what we love about him. He’s always looking for us and making us better.”
As much as his teammates appreciates the spark he provides, Jennings enjoys getting them the ball just as much.
“I try to bring energy for our offense,” he said. “I think it’s easy for me now because I’m playing with a lot of scorers. I set the table and take what the defense gives me. Carmelo, Porzingis, Derrick, [they make] it easy.
“Guys know [my passes are] coming. So I just tell guys, ‘Stay ready and just have fun when you’re out there. Don’t think about. Shoot your shots when you’re open and just play.’ I’ve always been a true point guard. I like to set the table and get guys involved.”
With Jennings leading the way, New York’s bench accounted for 16 of its 26 assists, and although Jennings was only 2-for-6 from the floor, the Knicks reserves shot basically the same as Porzingis, going a healthy 13-for-22 (59.1 percent), basically twice as good as Portland’s 7-for-24 (29.2 percent) off the bench.
Contributing in that respect, were rookie forwards Wily Hernangomez (nine points, on 4-of-5 shooting, and four rebounds) and Mindaugas Kuzminskas (10 points on 4-of-6 shooting, and three rebounds), in just under 21 minutes apiece, along with high-energy forward Justin Holiday (seven points, five rebounds and four assists in a little over 19 minutes).
New York’s win was especially encouraging given both Anthony’s shooting woes and that the Knicks had a severe disadvantage from the foul line, where the Trailblazers attempted 18 more (26-8) free throws, while making 13 more (21-8) than the home team , which committed 10 more fouls (23-13) than Portland.
The Knicks also found a way to win for the first time in which Rose score more than 15 points. Prior to beating the Trailblazers, they were 0-6 when Rose went over that mark, yet 6-1 when he scored 15 points or less.
A clutch, game-sealing, step back jumper by Rose provided the final points with 6.8 seconds left, as the shot clock was running down.
Before that, New York also dug down defensively to pull the win out down the stretch, in a tough contest that featured 20 lead changes and 11 ties.
After allowing Portland to make 5 of 11 3-pointers in the opening half, New York forced the Trailblazers into 1-of-11 shooting from behind the arc after the break, while not allowing a trey on five Portland attempts of fourth quarter in which the Trailblazers shot just 8-of-23 overall.
It was a stark improvement from earlier times this season when the Knicks struggled mightily on the defensive end of the floor.
“We buckled down,” Anthony said. “We won the game on hustle plays, extra effort. Everybody gave their extra effort on the defensive end, big time rebounds, [securing] loose balls, and we scrambled the last couple of minutes, and that was a big part of the reasons we won the game.”
Noting that the solid defensive effort translated to better offense, Anthony added, “I think the focus has been different. Guys are really locking in from a defensive standpoint, which is giving us confidence to play on the offensive end… and try to pick the pace up a little bit. We want to be in out in transition. We want to run. I think that’s where Derrick and Brandon are really effective, when we play like that.”
And after all of his great scoring games in past years, only to his team come up short, Anthony — who was booed at one point, when he forced a tough fourth-quarter jumper and missed, was happy to share the spotlight was those around him who were more effective.
It’s what has allowed Porzingis to start taking the next step in beginning to score and take over key stretches of games the way Anthony used to on a more frequent basis.
“I like how much I’m involved now and how much we’re going through me [offensively],” Porzingis said.
However, the Knicks, who after a large offseason roster overhaul, are 6-2 at home this season, two years after going 10-31 at the Garden, are relying on a lot more than Porzingis’ continued development.
“We’re starting to figure it out,” Porzingis said “We just played team basketball. I think we’re making progress.”
Rose added, “I think we’re eliminating ways to beat ourselves… it all starts with the mental focus, just coming in and being prepared.”
That and expanding the roles for as many others as possible, just in case Anthony has an off night.
Even for players like the 27-year-old Kuzminskas, who after averaging only nine minutes per game this season, played the entire fourth quarter and made his only 3-pointer (in two attempts) off of an assist from Rose, to extend a precarious one-point lead to 105-101with 2:36 remaining.
“As rookies, we need to be ready all the time,” Kuzminskas said. “You never know when your minutes are coming. It doesn’t matter how much you play. You can play two, five or 10 minutes, you can [still] give your best.”
Lately, a variety of Knicks are doing just that, at least at home (as New York, despite its home success is just 1-5 on the road).
“I think the balance on our team is really good,” Kuzminskas said. “We have some veteran players, we have some young guys, so I think that balance is helping us. As a team, we are still improving and I think that our best moments will be in the future.”
A welcome notion to Anthony, who might have to depend on his teammates a little more often, instead of the other way around, as in the past.