I don’t believe the Knicks will win tonight’s game against the Mavericks. This isn’t, necessarily, surprising; the Mavericks are the defending champions, and the Knicks have been up-and-down. But the more I think about why I don’t feel good about tonight’s game, the more I keep getting back to the differences between Dirk and Melo as the leaders of their respective teams.
Both the Mavericks and the Knicks are coming off of what should have been extraordinarily disappointing losses against quality opponents. Each had erased a second-half deficit of some magnitude to reclaim the lead. Each had chances to close out the game. Each had failed to do so. The Mavericks’ loss to Oklahoma City included Jason Terry calling his own number instead of getting the ball to the appropriate Alemanian, prompting this, um, somewhat-less-than-pleased reaction from Mr. Novitzski.
Carmelo Anthony, on the other hand, had taken the last shot for his team in regulation, a potential historic buzzer-beater against the Boston Celtics, and missed. His team failed to prevail against the Celtics- which, it seems worth repeating, are from Boston- and yet his reaction was decidedly less upset. As Marc Berman of the NY Post reported, Anthony post-loss was able to remark “Games like that are fun. It’s more exciting and more of a thrill if we won the game. But it happens and we move on.”
Look, my views on this subject are admittedly influenced by my own competitive nature. And as I noted in my lockout-analysis of why we love the NBA, players are largely correct when they understand that basketball is just a game. But, as I also noted, if the players don’t at least maintain the façade that the games really matter, fans are going to get pissed off. This is especially true of New Yorkers, and even more true of anything having to do with the New York-Boston rivalry. And so Melo seemingly shrugging off the loss, in addition to the easy manner the Knicks displayed as they hugged it out with the Celtics, makes me pretty frustrated.
The main problem with the reaction, if one is inclined to support the Knicks, is that such behavior appears to be the opposite of how leaders of previous championship teams would have acted. Can you imagine MJ missing a game winning shot, and then saying “the game was fun?” Dirk? Kobe? Tim Duncan? Going further back, Larry Bird? And I don’t care if you think Pierce or KG was more important to the Celtics title in ’08; neither was going to laugh off that loss.
The problem is not that Melo is slacking on the court; there were several moments where his effort was unquestionably on display, such as when he fought for a rebound off three or four consecutive misses. He also hit a number of shots for the Knicks in the last few minutes of the game, displaying once more why he can be a great option in the clutch. I didn’t love the play at the end of the game (you should get a better shot off when you have over four seconds left on the clock,) but I didn’t have a problem with Melo shooting the ball, or with his missing the shot. The potential issue is that his demeanor post-loss indicates that losing doesn’t bother him in the way that history indicates it would have to for him to be (or become) a top-flight player. Melo’s demeanor didn’t help Paul Pierce make a ridiculous three-pointer, or cause him to miss his game-winner, but it may be preventing the team from establishing the sort of culture in the locker room required for the Knicks to reach real success. And, those on Twitter who stepped forward to defend him aside, making light of a loss doesn’t play well in this city. Especially not when that loss is to Boston.
Which is why I fervidly hope that the laughter is merely Melo’s way of shielding his interior frustration about the loss. Since he was young his coaches have always noted his competitive desire, making his comments yesterday that much more befuddling. Saying the game was fun is acceptable only if, on the inside, he was thinking “I will absolutely destroy you, Paul Pierce, next time we play.”
Anyone who has watched Dirk knows that the Mavericks will come out angry tonight. Not only did they just lose a close game, they lost to the Knicks the last time the two played, and I guarantee no player on the Mavericks has forgotten the role they played in Linsanity. If the Knicks don’t match that intensity, especially coming off a tough loss of their own, it will only create more doubt about the players leading the team. This is a chance for Melo to prove my doubts incorrect. I sincerely hope that they are.