What you have seen more than anything in this dismal season for the Knicks is that Carmelo Anthony, despite what you might hear, read or believe, cares about winning. Or, more to the point, he hates losing.
The losing was wearing on him, changing everything for a superstar who came to New York three years ago and seemed destined to complete the franchise’s long walk out of a decade of darkness. Instead, he got more darkness — more than he’d ever experienced in his career.
Now might be a good time to point out that Anthony has never endured a losing season in his 11-year NBA career — until this one. And as he said at halftime of his historic, 62-point game against the Charlotte Bobcats on Friday night, “I won’t tolerate losing.”
What you will hear about Melo’s magical performance — a franchise and current Madison Square Garden record — is that it proves nothing except the worst stereotypes about one of the NBA’s most gifted scorers. The grumpy old men in the balcony from the Muppets were already chirping on Twitter about how Anthony didn’t have a single assist to go with his 62 points.
As if he’s supposed to pass to J.R. Smith on his way into the NBA history books, with his team rolling to a rare night of outright elation, on its way to a 29-point victory, 125-96. As if Kobe Bryant was supposed to pass to Smush Parker on his way to 81 against the Toronto Raptors in January 2006.
Bryant had two assists that night, in case you’re wondering — proof, I suppose, of Anthony’s enduring selfishness.
Nonsense. Anthony has been anything but during this lost season in New York. He has done nothing but rise above the circus atmosphere that has engulfed his team, leading the NBA in minutes played (39 per game) while putting together one of his best all-around seasons. His nine rebounds per game are a career high, and his 3.1 assists (yep, assists) are the sixth-highest average of his career.
More than anything, though, Anthony has not fueled what could easily have become a free-agent hysteria with his chance to opt out and hit the market after the season. He hasn’t complained about his predicament, because after all, it is his predicament. Melo wanted New York so badly that he forced his way here in a trade that stripped a young, promising Knicks team built by Donnie Walsh of most key assets it had.
That, in the end, will be Anthony’s burden to bear. He just gave everyone a reminder that, on nights like this one, he’s worth it.
Anthony passed his boyhood idol, Bernard King, for the Knicks’ scoring record on Friday night. King scored 60 in 1984, when I, too, was a boy. For the past five years, Melo’s closest friend among the NBA’s elite, Kobe Bryant, owned the highest-scoring game in the current Madison Square Garden with 61 in 2009. Sixty-one — a number that recalls Roger Maris’ takedown of Babe Ruth — stands no more at MSG.
He tied Bryant and Tracy McGrady for the sixth-highest scoring game in the NBA since the 1985-86 season, according to BasketballReference.com. In the past 10 seasons, only Bryant — with 81 in 2006 and 65 in 2007 — has scored more.
Fittingly, Bryant comes to the Garden on Sunday, as a spectator in street clothes with the Lakers. Bryant has played, and will play, his entire career with one franchise. And while Anthony’s outburst by itself won’t fix the Knicks — who are still only 16-27, with very few options for surrounding him with championship talent — it’s worth wondering whether it will alter his perspective.
During the summer, on a promotional trip to China with Jordan Brand, Anthony told friends, “There’s no way I’m leaving New York,” a person close to him told me recently. Of course, at that point, the Knicks were coming off a 54-win season and had reason to harbor a legitimate belief that they would be joining Indiana in hunting down Miami in the East for a shot at the NBA Finals.
Since then, Anthony has endured a nightmarish season — the kind of embarrassment that sent Dwight Howard running to Houston after only one season in LA. It’s still an open question as to what Anthony will do. But this night at the Garden will always be his, a forever moment to cherish and perhaps reinforce some of the reasons he wanted to come in the first place.
And some of the reasons the Knicks — flawed, dysfunctional and seemingly hopeless as they are — wanted him.