Stopping himself, Anthony tapped his mahogany locker room stall and said, “Knock on wood but right now, I’m in a very great space.”
Anthony went from describing his “space” as good to great in a manner of seconds, but it is taking him a little longer to shatter his reputation as a big-time scorer who can’t win big and become a more complete player who can lead and inspire. That transformation is possibly beginning to take place in Anthony’s 10th season, with the Knicks alone atop the Atlantic Division standings and Anthony generating some early buzz for league’s most valuable player after an offseason of introspection and improvement.
“We’re all sitting here today, benefiting from Melo’s play, because he put in a lot of hard work this summer,” said Knicks Coach Mike Woodson, who took over as D’Antoni’s replacement last season.
‘Relax and have fun’
Anthony has had better statistical seasons, however, he is committed to making sacrifices and making plays that might not make the stat sheet or highlight reel but help his team win. In a recent win over Phoenix, Anthony plucked the ball away from Suns forward Michael Beasley, lunged to the ground to make a one-handed save, then rolled out of bounds and smiled as the play ended with a Tyson Chandler alley-oop dunk.
“Everyone is acting like it’s a surprise why he’s doing what he’s doing. It’s not a surprise to me. He’s one of the best players in the world. Always has been,” said three-time MVP LeBron James. “Melo is a great player. Any time you have a great player on your team, you have a great opportunity to win ball games.”
But success has rarely come without stress for Anthony, who reached the playoffs in each of his first nine seasons in the NBA but has carried only one team — the 2008-09 Nuggets — beyond the first round. His two playoff appearances with the Knicks have been disappointments, with New York winning one game and Anthony receiving a public pelting for some woeful performances. Though Stoudemire missed time in both series because of injuries, Anthony became the face of the failures.
“At the end of the day, I make no excuses,” Anthony said. “Whether we’re shorthanded or not, if I’m out there, and we play and we lose, it’s on me.”
The Knicks have done a decent job in replicating the formula that produced the previous best season of Anthony’s career, when Denver advanced to the conference finals, by assembling a cast of intelligent and accountable veterans willing to accept roles and play off of him.
They let Jeremy Lin leave for Houston, replacing him with Raymond Felton, and Jason Kidd is now doing what Chauncey Billups did for Anthony in Denver, getting him better looks, making him more efficient and encouraging him to trust his teammates.
“I’m just trying to get him to relax and have fun,” Kidd said.
Kidd and Chandler are back together after winning a championship in Dallas in 2011, and their presence has led to the Knicks drawing comparisons to that Mavericks squad, with Anthony receiving the same benefits as Dirk Nowitzki. The Knicks have also added Kurt Thomas, Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby — and Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert have yet to play because of injuries.
New York won again Wednesday night in Charlotte, though Anthony missed the end of the game, receiving six stitches on a lacerated left middle finger. He is expected to play Thursday in Miami.
‘A different player this year’
“By far, this is one of the best teams that I’ve been on, since I’ve been in the NBA,” said Anthony, comparing this Knicks team to the U.S. Olympic team that won a gold medal in London last August. “It was similar to what we have here now, as far as the camaraderie with this team. That’s something that I wanted to bring back. Really locking in and focusing on trusting my teammates and trusting in the fact that if I pass them the ball, I know they can make the shot and if they get beat, I’ve got their back and vice versa.”
Chandler, who also won a gold medal with Anthony last summer, said Anthony is “a different player this year, by far” and added that the Olympic experience has greatly changed his reputation and focus. Anthony accepted a sixth man role in London, backing up James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant, and admitted that spending those six weeks training and playing with Team USA made him better.
“If somebody tells you it didn’t, then they lied to you,” he said. “How can you be around the best players in the world and it don’t influence you in some way, shape or form? It definitely influenced me.”
But Anthony denied any extra motivation coming from watching his 2003 draft peers James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh claiming a championship last June in Miami and Durant already taking Oklahoma City to an NBA Finals. “I definitely don’t look at that, not at all,” Anthony said. “A championship. That’s what I’m seeking, but I can’t be looking ahead.”
That approach is understandable, considering what he’s already seen. The pressures of New York remain the same, the lens just as discerning, but Anthony is learning what it takes to make the experience worthwhile.
“When you’re winning, that eases the pain. That eases a lot of things,” Anthony said. “We’re winning, playing great basketball. I feel like we’re only going to get better. It’s a lot of room for improvement, but we’re only going to get better. I’m enjoying the moment right now.”