In the last 15 years, only one player on the Knicks has made me believe in greatness.
Longtime NBA fans know what I’m talking about. There are dozens of elite players in the league at any given time, but only a handful that keep you from going to the bathroom when they’re having a hot night. Only a select few have the potential for a historic game every time they get on the floor, to the point where you’re salivating for the chance to watch your star when he drops 57 points (Deron Williams) or scores 17 points in the last five minutes of a game (LeBron James). You’re willing to sell the house for a guy like that, even if it means trading five quarters for a dollar (copyright Bill Simmons 2010). Because with the exception of the 2004 Pistons, five quarters won’t win you a championship. You need at least one “dollar player” on your team, a guy who on any given night can basically win a game by himself.
That, of course, was the Knicks’ thinking when they acquired Carmelo Anthony. And for the last month, Melo has played at a level that Knicks fans have not seen from one of their own since Patrick Ewing was in his prime.
For the month of April, Melo averaged a 29.8/7.3/3.6, shot 46% from three-point range and had four games with at least two steals. He also had a few games where he was just on another level, and it was heartening to see those performances come against the Knicks’ primary Eastern Conference rivals. Against Boston on April 17, Melo dominated every facet of the game, finishing with a 35-12-10 (his only triple-double of the season) to lead the Knicks to a 118-110 win. In a preview of the Knicks first-round matchup with the Heat, Melo dropped 42 points in a hard-fought 93-85 loss to Miami on April 15 (much more on this later).
Melo’s coup de grace came on Easter Sunday in a home game against the Bulls. A game-tying three to force overtime, a game-winning three with eight seconds left in overtime, 43 points overall, one frenzied Madison Square Garden crowd chanting “M-V-P!”. I wrote about the thrill of watching a Knick come up big in a big game for once in my “Easter Sunday with my Dad” column. As I wrote about Melo’s game-winning three:
Despite all the Masters drama still to come, that basket produced the loudest roar of the day at the Simpson household. Any fan of a long-suffering team will tell you that when the game is on the line, they fear the worst instead of expecting the best, because the worst has proven over time to be the more likely outcome. So when Melo hit what would be the game-winning three — after hitting the game-tying three in regulation — we went nuts.
The same rationale applies to the star who made the shot. Not since Ewing have I believed that a Knicks player had the ability to put the team on his back, as my friend Lee would say. On paper, was it worth trading four potential starters (Danilo Gallinari, Ray Felton, Wilson Chandler and the inimitable Timofey Mosgov) for Melo? Probably not. But Melo’s sensational April has more than validated the trade and given Knicks fans a standard-bearer for the franchise. Due respect to Jeremy Lin, but this is Melo’s team, and that’s the way it should be.
Of course, Melo can only achieve real immortality in New York if he leads the Knicks to a title. This may not be the year, but the Knicks’ championship chops will be weighed and measured in their first-round series against the Heat, which starts Saturday at 3:30PM ET. Nobody (including myself) has given New York a chance, not when LeBron can neutralize Melo. A few key points heading into Game 1:
KEY MATCHUP: Melo vs. LeBron. What, you were expecting Baron Davis vs. Mario Chalmers? In the Heat’s win over the Knicks two weeks ago, Melo abused Miami forward and former defensive standout Shane Battier for three quarters, scoring 35 points. In the fourth, the Heat put LeBron on Melo, and the presumptive MVP completely shut Melo down (seven points, three of which came on a lucky 25-foot heave). I’ve repeatedly argued that LeBron is the best on-the-ball defender in the NBA, and he always plays with a little extra fire when he’s guarding Melo. The only way the Knicks can win is if Melo has multiple 35-40 point games. And he’ll have to go through LeBron to get them.
WRINKLE TO WATCH FOR: Amare Stoudemire, sixth man. The New York Times ran a story on Thursday arguing that the Knicks would be better served with Stat leading the second unit off the bench. That way, Melo and Stat could play the bulk of their minutes when the other is not on the floor, allowing them to be the first offensive option for most of their court time. Before you laugh off the idea, consider that it has already worked in Miami, albeit unintentionally. In my ESPN Radio appearance last week, I documented how LeBron’s per-game averages go way up when Dwyane Wade is not on the floor with him. It’s simple math: 2 high-volume offensive players + 1 basketball to go around = 1 headache. The Knicks have had a similar problem with Melo and Stat, despite their strong fourth quarters in Sunday’s win over the Hawks. Bringing Stat off the bench is long shot (if it backfires, interim coach Mike Woodson probably doesn’t come back next season), but it’s the right move, and I hope Woodson at least tries it out in Game 1 or 2 in Miami.
KNICKS X-FACTOR: Bench play. On good days, the Knicks can get 35-40 points from J.R. Smith and Steve (Super)Novak, strong defensive play from Jared Jeffries and offensive spurts from Landry Fields. Backup point guard Mike Bibby can look 100 years one game, then have 12 assists the next night. All the primary bench guys except Jeffries are hit-or-miss players, and when they miss it’s virtually impossible for the Knicks to beat the Heat (short of a 50-point game from Melo or something). Smith and Novak are particularly important — as they go, so go the Knicks.
HEAT X-FACTOR: Dwyane Wade’s health. The Heat star dislocated his left index finger last week, and though the injury is on his non-shooting hand, Wade’s ball-handling and dribble-driving will undoubtedly be hampered. How much? That’s the $64,000 question, and it could open the door for a Knicks’ upset if Wade is not himself offensively.
ONE KNICK WHO WILL BE DOMINANT: Tyson Chandler. Against Joel Anthony, Udonis Haslem and an injured Chris Bosh (battling hamstring issues)? No contest.
PREDICTION: Heat in six. It pains me to guess that, because it means the clincher will come at the Garden. But unless Wade is completely ineffective because of the dislocated finger, Miami is too motivated and has too much talent for New York to overcome.