Carmelo Anthony had to endure another round of questions about his ability to lead, another round of taunts and insults from the Boston Celtics — allegedly about his wife — and even an aggravated left shoulder before he could finally got the New York Knicks out of the first round.
Anthony has been in the conference semifinals once before, four years ago when he led the Denver Nuggets to the Western Conference finals. But the stakes are higher for Anthony in New York, where every misstep is overly scrutinized and every shortcoming will inevitably fall upon him.
“Always,” Anthony said with a smile, since he demanded that situation.
Anthony wasn’t at his best against Boston — he shot 30.4 percent (25 of 82) in the final three games — but he survived. His left shoulder, which got injured during a tussle with Kevin Garnett in Game 5, and “popped in and out a little bit” when Celtics guard Avery Bradley stole the ball from him in Game 6, remains sore. But he knows his task is far from complete as the Knicks host the Indiana Pacers in Game 1 of the second round Sunday at Madison Square Garden, a series that will surely rekindle some of those physical battles between the two teams in the late 1990s.
“The more I get beat up, the sorer it gets,” Anthony said of his shoulder. “But it’s not something I come into the game thinking about. I’ll be fine, I’ll be ready come Sunday.”
Anthony’s arrival in New York two years ago was greeted with the expectations of deep playoff runs, but he needed three tries — and three closeout games against a fading but proud Celtics team — to win one series.
Boston lost the first three games, then pushed Anthony into some bad habits in the next two — those isolation, ball-stopping, one-man heroics — before he realized that postseason success is measured more in whether the team wins than if he has an offensive eruption.
In the series-clinching Game 6, Anthony played the willing role of decoy as the Knicks built a 26-point lead. He let teammates Iman Shumpert, Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigioni take advantage of the open looks until the Celtics staged an improbable 20-0 fourth-quarter run and he could no longer defer.
“I told my teammates from the beginning of the game, ‘I’m pretty sure that the Celtics really thought that I was going to come out guns blazing,’ ” Anthony said after scoring 21 points in the Knicks’ 88-80 win over the Celtics.
How could they not? Anthony wears a padded, protective sleeve over the right arm that has always been his most reliable weapon. If his team is struggling, Anthony will respond with more fearless shots.
“It’s always the next one,” Anthony said. “Somebody like myself — as a scorer — you always believe that the next one is going in.”
Anthony has become a perennial all-star and won his first scoring championship this season because he can put the basketball into that cylinder better than most, and in more ways than anyone else in the league. But despite his scoring prowess, Anthony has never been viewed as a winner.
He has taken the criticism, but said he never internalizes it. His 17-37 postseason record entering the playoffs was the worst in NBA history among players with at least 50 playoff games. And yes, he was knocked out of the first round in eight of his first nine playoff appearances — but in only one of those series was his former club, the Nuggets, the higher-seeded team.
No team in NBA history had held a 3-0 series lead and lost. Anthony had no intention of letting the Knicks be the first. Under immense pressure to deliver in Boston, against Garnett — a foil who also struggled to get out of the first round early in his career in Minnesota — Anthony said he blocked out the distractions.
“I can’t go into a basketball game thinking about that. My mind was clear,” Anthony said. “I had one thing in my mind which was do whatever it takes to win this basketball game. Do whatever it takes to win this basketball series. As far as failure goes, I can’t step into the court thinking about failure. . . . When you start second-guessing everything, when you start playing with doubt, it brings a lot of stress onto the situation, a lot of stress onto the basketball game. I can’t afford to play under those circumstances.”
With his team unraveling in the fourth quarter on Friday, that mind-set allowed Anthony to make the most critical shots of the game — a difficult pull-up jumper over Brandon Bass, a three-pointer from the top of the key that ended a stretch of 19 consecutive misses from long distance.
“It’s all about what happens in the next play, what you do the next play,” Anthony said, using a philosophy that mirrors his attitude with leading the Knicks. “Whether it’s a shot for yourself or a shot for your teammates, but you should never play with any doubt whatsoever, and I try not to play with any doubt.”