During their recent skid, the outlook of Carmelo Anthony had been like that of the doomed black knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: a mix of comical nonchalance and frightening denial in the midst of repeated, very bloody setbacks.
“It’s just a flesh wound”, he seemed to say after every disappointing outing or fourth quarter collapse – wounds that time and practice would surely heal.
That all changed prior to Monday’s matchup with the Magic – their second meeting in less than a week – with Anthony reluctantly labeling the game a must-win. Still, against an Orlando squad they had yet to best in three tries, you could forgive the Knick faithful for assuming even Melo’s contrite clarion call wouldn’t be enough to stop the bleeding.
Instead, Knick Knation was treated to a much-needed win as zany and unexpected as any Python skit, as New York topped Orlando 113-106 in overtime. Once again the Knicks squandered a second half lead – this one a 6 point spot late in the fourth – allowing the Magic to extend the game on Jason Richardson’s 25-foot bomb with just over 5 seconds remaining.
Despite sloppy play and bricks abound on both sides – and Dwight Howard’s 17th technical of the season – the Knicks managed to pull away in OT behind the timely scoring of Chauncey Billups (17 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and an overtime three that put the Knicks up for good, 106-104), Toney Douglas (16 points, 4 rebounds, an equally clutch overtime triple and a team high +/- of +20), and Anthony himself.
Fittingly, it was Melo who made the most of his palpable pre-game urgency, banking a Knick tenure high 39 points on 26 shots – including a whopping 33 in the second half and 19 in the third quarter alone – to go along with 10 rebounds and one, gigantic sigh of relief that millions would be content to mark an assist.
All in all it was a game that displayed both the best and worst of New York’s prodigal star. At times Anthony was unstoppable, and his teammates were more than willing to oblige Melo’s ISO tendencies for the sake of a much-needed hot hand. Like the team as a whole, on defense Anthony was engaged throughout, deflecting passes and exuding an enthusiasm for the craft seldom seen since his late February arrival.
But he also missed a wide-open Landry Fields while draped with no less than three defenders as time expired in regulation, and hoisted a number of ill-advised shots which – short of taking away from his enormous contribution to the desperately-needed W – couldn’t help but make any Knick fan feel just a little bit nervous.
If Melo made the Garden floor his center stage, Amar’ Stoudemire played the opera’s phantom, netting a quiet-but-efficient 20 points on just 10 shots. Despite barely touching the ball throughout the fourth and much of overtime, by game’s end it was Stoudemire’s $100 million smile that beamed the brightest, as the palpable burden that seemed to weigh on his shoulders more than any other during the team’s brutal stretch seemed for a moment lifted by the raucous Garden cheers.
The Knicks benefited greatly from the absence of Jameer Nelson, who sat out with a minor knee tweak. Nelson had given New York fits of late, averaging 22.5 points on 62% shooting in their last two meetings. But despite a timely three that helped close the gap in regulation, Gilbert Arenas struggled mightily in Nelson’s stead – his first start since being traded from Washington on December 19th – netting just 9 points on 2-7 shooting and a team high five turnovers.
Like Anthony, Dwight Howard supplanted a quiet first two quarters with a truly beastly second half in which he scored 25 of his 29 points and grabbed 13 of his 18 rebounds. Seemingly out of answers for a honed-in Howard, Mike D’Antoni decided to throw seldom-used Shelden Williams – acquired from Denver in the Anthony trade – into the fire midway through the fourth. Williams responded with a key stretch in which he stole an entry pass intended for Howard, tied him up for a jump ball, and grabbed an offensive rebound that resulted in a timely Stoudemire lay-in.
With his serviceable play on the defensive end, Williams may have earned himself heavier minutes (if not the outright starting slot) going forward. In the process, he may help fill a void that had plagued the Knicks throughout their recent skid – a 10-game streak in which D’Antoni had started four different centers and six different lineups (resulting in 9 losses) in a desperate attempt to find the right mix for their first playoff appearance in 7 years.
The Knicks will play one more game – Wednesday night against the Nets – before a much needed three days of rest leading up to Sunday’s series finale against the confounding Cavaliers, whom the Knicks have yet to best in 3 tries this year. With their next three games at home against middling opponents, the Knicks couldn’t have picked a better night to get back on track. And while it would still take a collapse on the order of the 2007 Mets to put them in the lottery and out of the playoffs, their new-found sense of urgency – and defensive intensity – should remain ready for the tapping as they head into the final pre-playoff stretch.
Hey, it’s better than trying to win by bleeding on them.