This was more than just a celebration. It was delayed gratification, a 19,000-person exhale, a primal scream of relief. This was more than just (as critical as it was).
This was the Carmelo Anthony whom fans expected when the tore up their roster 14 months ago. This was the payoff that James L. Dolan, the Garden chairman, surely envisioned when he sacrificed four rotation players, three draft picks and $6 million in that trade with the Denver Nuggets.
This was the moment that Anthony himself needed, after a fitful season of injuries, sulking and underachieving. Four Sundays earlier, Anthony was booed for another lackluster showing. Now he was bathed in adoration.
“A great atmosphere,” Anthony said after hitting the two biggest shots of the afternoon — a 3-pointer that forced overtime and another that won the game.
No one ever doubted that Anthony was capable of big scoring totals and big-game heroics. His Nuggets tenure was filled with them. He has consistently ranked among the league’s top clutch performers.
But that Carmelo Anthony was missing this season as he chafed against various forces: a coach he didn’t respect, an offense he didn’t embrace, a surrounding cast that seemed to put a crimp in his swagger. Ankle, wrist, thumb and groin injuries did not help, either.
Over his first 39 games, Anthony averaged 20 points and shot 39.9 percent from the field, career lows. , Anthony has averaged 29.9 points while hitting 49 percent of his shots, looking worthy once more of his superstar reputation.
What changed? Just about everything.
Anthony is finally healthy, which is evident in his lift and his shooting stroke. He is clearly happier with Mike Woodson as his coach than he was playing for Mike D’Antoni. By his own admission, Anthony is working harder, especially on defense, since the coaching change March 14. His entire demeanor has transformed over the last four weeks.
Woodson has rewritten the playbook in Anthony’s favor, with more isolation and post-up chances, and greater license to operate one on one — a style that D’Antoni disdained. But Anthony’s renaissance was born of necessity as much as design.
Amar’e Stoudemire is out because of a back injury. Jeremy Lin has been lost to knee surgery. Anthony’s resurgence began the moment that those two — the Knicks’ second- and third-leading scorers — bowed out two weeks ago. This is not coincidental, and it is more than a star player simply picking up the slack.
Anthony is benefiting from more touches and more shots — an average of 21.6 per game since Lin and Stoudemire were lost, an increase of 4.2 per game. But he is also benefiting by a move to power forward (Stoudemire’s spot), where he can beat opponents with his quickness and perimeter game.
“They’re going to play the game through Carmelo,” Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy said last week. “They’re not trying to split up touches and keep other people happy and everything else.”
The results should not be surprising. Anthony has historically been at his best as a solo act, as the undisputed focal point of his team, as the primary shooter, scorer and ball-handler — the role he has now. He is annually among the league leaders in usage rate, which measures the percentage of team possessions used by a player. Anthony averages 31.2 percent for his career.
Without Stoudemire and Lin, Anthony no longer has to defer, wait for the ball or force himself to be a facilitator, a role he rejected earlier this season.
Anthony and Stoudemire have been an awkward fit since the moment that Anthony arrived in February 2011, each playing better when the other is on the bench. The Lin-Anthony partnership has also been fraught.
The Knicks’ last losing streak coincided with Anthony returning to the lineup, after the Knicks had established a new identity formed around Lin’s ball-handling and passing.
As Anthony said on March 6, after a : “I think any time you go from the early part of the season, just having the ball and me just having the ball and being the distributor, and now just running the wings and waiting for the ball to come to me, that’s quite an adjustment for myself.”
That adjustment is no longer necessary. When Lin went down, most of D’Antoni’s spread-the-floor, pick-and-roll offense went with him. Anthony does not have to stand and wait for open shots now — he creates them himself.
For now, it is all working brilliantly. Anthony is happy, productive and thriving. The Knicks have won five of their last seven games — including upsets of Orlando and Chicago — without two key starters.
But at some point, Stoudemire will return. At some point, the Knicks will need Anthony to be more than just a single-minded scorer. Playoff series are rarely won by solo acts, as Anthony’s former team can attest.
The boos are a fading memory. The adoring cheers will last only as long as the wins do.