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Decision Right, Timing Wrong

By Alan Hahn
January 28, 2012

Remember that Carmelo Anthony was the first player in the gym the second the NBA unlocked the doors in December. Remember that Melo arrived in great shape, with three percent less body fat than the season before and with a sense of ownership of the team after last season's whirlwind.

And if none of that means anything to you, go with the simple fact that Melo has never ducked anyone in his career, especially LeBron James. His head-to-head career record against his 2003 draft classmate is 10-4.
 
I recall conversations I had with NBA executives and scouts who each told me of all the players in the NBA, Anthony may be the only NBA player that has the ability to intimidate LeBron. It is a terrific battle between these two friends -- remember, they are good friends off the court as members of this NBA Rat Pack (LeBron, Wade, Melo and CP3) -- every time they meet and star players look forward to these battles, they don't retreat from them.
 
So, as we discussed at the top on Visa Knicks Game Night before the Knicks faced the Heat last night, let's dispel any notion that Anthony simply didn't want to play against LeBron. It was because he knew he couldn't compete against LeBron and the Knicks couldn't afford to have someone at half-speed going against one of the game's most physically dominant players.
 
Fact is, Melo shouldn't have been playing at all over the last week. And the truth is, he should have shut it down sooner.
 
"I think I was trying to be a superhero, trying to prove to my teammates that I can play hurt," Anthony admitted before the game. "At the end of the day, looking at the games the last week-and-a-half, I just wasn't myself physically. It was taking a toll on me mentally."
 
Anthony started out the season as one of the NBA's most efficient scorers, but slowly reverted to his isolation tendencies when the Knick offense started to falter. Melo's issue isn't selfishness (he leads the team with a career-high 4.3 assists per game this season), it is the simple fact that he trusts his game more than he trusts his teammates. And let's be honest, considering the poor shooting this season, you can understand that perspective.
 
But what Mike D'Antoni (and Amar'e Stoudemire) are desperately trying to convince him to do is trust the system and stick to the gameplan. In other words, let the ball find you. Some games, if the opponent is focused on stopping you, the ball will go elsewhere. And that's OK. That's why you play on a team with another star, so you don't have to carry the scoring burden.
 
Last night's game in Miami provided the example, for most of three quarters, at least.
 
The Heat surrounded Stoudemire and gave him no room to work. It left the perimeter open for many shots and, for one night, the Knicks hit them. Amar'e had just 14 shots and was bottled up without a pick-and-roll point guard to help him get free, but afterward he was pleased with what he saw with the offense.
 
"The game was going well for a lot of other guys, so moving the ball was key for us," Stoudemire said.
 
But let's get back to Melo, who some wanted to see gut it out and play despite having no chance to keep pace running on a bad right ankle that has taken away his explosiveness to the rim and his elevation on his jumper.
 
Two games ago, he had just one point and was 0-for-7 from the field in Charlotte, but the Knicks got away with it because the Bobcats are awful. Then he went to Cleveland and made a few shots, but had nothing to offer physically against a young team that can run.
 
In a season with games that keep coming with little to no time off -- next week brings the one (and only) back-to-back-to-back of the schedule -- the only way to get rest is to take a game or two off. Dwyane Wade was out for the last six games before he returned last night. Dirk Nowitzki is in the midst of a four-game hiatus to allow his balky knee to heal and get his conditioning right.
 
And let's not overlook Baron Davis, either. To his credit, he is not rushing back to the court despite the team's desperate need for him. Davis, who is recovering from a herniated disk, does not want to come back until he is 100 percent strong and can help the team. For him to come back too soon could result in a setback that will only hurt the team more.
 
The East has nine teams under .500. The Knicks have to stay within range of the playoff bracket and hope they can go into the postseason hitting their stride and, most importantly, at full health.
 
So for Carmelo, the decision to sit is absolutely the right idea, but the argument can be made that it came a week too late. He was already hurting after rolling the ankle and jamming the wrist in the Memphis game on Jan. 12, which started this 1-8 tailspin -- Coincidence? -- and he sat out just one game (Jan. 14 in Oklahoma City) in that span, despite obvious physical limitations.
 
He finally accepted the fact that he can't be like the inhuman Kobe Bryant, he can't play through the pain and still be effective.
 
"I think he's a gamer, he's one of the toughest guys I know," D'Antoni said of Melo. "And if that sets him out, that means he's hurt. He's played through a lot of pain and a lot of stuff, he's always done that so obviously he's hurt."
 
TYSON WANTS 'NEW YORK' IDENTITY
 
Despite the loss, the Knicks were collectively encouraged -- let's not use the word satisfied here, it still was a loss -- by a toughness that emerged throughout the game against a historical rival. After LeBron and D-Wade put on a dunk show for most of the first half, the Knicks got more physical around the rim to put an end to the jam session.
 
It started with rookie Iman Shumpert's hustle to catch up with Wade on a break and make a good play to stop his driving dunk attempt. Wade, who had just returned from missing six games with an ankle injury, took exception to the aggressive play and got in Shumpert's face. Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler quickly stepped in to protect the young guard, who, to his credit, said nothing.
 
Then there was a hard foul by Bill Walker when LeBron was going strong to the basket. LeBron glared at Walker and said, "Don't say nothing to me!" when the Knicks forward had a few words for him.
 
Overall, the Knicks showed great intensity in meeting a challenge against one of the NBA's top teams. It is the type of effort that should be a given on every night, not just when you're playing to not get embarrassed. It's the type of effort that Chandler said should be a main characteristic of a team from New York.
 
"That’s the way you've got to play; that’s what this team has to be all about," Chandler said. "We have to represent our city. That's the way New York is, a grinding city, gutter, and we have to play that way with that type of personality."
 
FIXINS
 
•Landry Fields had some moments in the game where he looked physically overwhelmed by the Heat, with five of his 12 shots blocked. But of the seven that got to the rim, he did make four of them. Fields' stat-line looked good once again, with 14 points, seven rebounds, five assists and a steal in 34:03.
 
•Bill Walker's career-high seven three-pointers was two shy of the franchise record for a game, which is shared by Toney Douglas (vs. Memphis, March 17, 2011), Latrell Sprewell and John Starks.
 
•The 18 threes made by the Knicks were two shy of the franchise record (vs. Memphis, March 17, 2011) and the 43 attempts were four shy of the team record (vs. Chicago, Dec. 17, 2009).
 
Tweet yesterday from former Nuggets shooting guard J.R. Smith, who had been playing in China this season: "I wonder what it's like to play on broadway? #hmmmmm!" Smith, of course, is an unrestricted free agent. Once his team's season ends, he will be eligible to sign with any NBA team. The Knicks, who still have their "room exception," are believed to be among teams interested.

 
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