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NEW ORLEANS – Even on the road, Spike Lee had a good to seat to watch his New York Knicks take on the New Orleans Hornets on Tuesday. And it hasn't been hard for Lee to notice something different about Carmelo Anthony this season.
"Carmelo is just playing a complete game," Lee said. "Now for whatever reason that is, I don't want to get into it. I don't know. But there is a distinct difference in what he is doing now and when he first put on a Knick uniform."
The difference: For a change, Anthony is playing defense. The Knicks are better for it, having won eight of their first nine games for the NBA's best record.
While no one has ever questioned Anthony's ability to score, his former coaches with the Denver Nuggets often wondered why he never showed the same willingness to defend as he did while playing for Team USA. This season, however, Anthony committed himself to becoming a better defender.
Lee thinks Anthony's improved defense is because of the time Anthony spent playing with Kobe Bryant and LeBron James at the London Olympics this past summer. Knicks guard J.R. Smith, who also played with Anthony in Denver, believes it's because Anthony is just tired of losing in the playoffs. Anthony credits Knicks coach Mike Woodson for bringing a more disciplined mindset to the team since he replaced Mike D'Antoni in March.
"I know I can do [play defense]," Anthony said. "It's not a matter of me not being able to do it. It was me just saying, 'OK, I'm going to do it now.' We have a coach that stays on me about it. There wasn't a defensive system since I came to New York, but with Coach Woodson it was just a matter of putting our system in, having a full training camp."
Knicks center Tyson Chandler is impressed enough with Anthony's overall play this season that he considers him the league's leading MVP candidate.
"He should be at the top of the race right now," Chandler said. "We're playing the best basketball, and he's playing all over the floor on both ends."
The one question hanging over Anthony and the Knicks: Will they continue to play just as well when Amar'e Stoudemire returns from knee surgery?
Center Marcus Camby, who also played with Anthony in Denver, thinks 'Melo's defensive work has been contagious.
"When you see a guy like 'Melo going out there playing defense there is no excuse for everyone else to not follow suit," Camby said.
Since Anthony joined the Knicks, he and Stoudemire haven't had a lot of success playing together. Stoudemire is expected to be out until at least the middle of December. Anthony has moved to power forward in Stoudemire's absence.
Woodson hasn't guaranteed that Stoudemire will immediately move back to his old starting position when he returns. But Woodson does think Stoudemire and Anthony can co-exist. As for Anthony, he's not sure what to expect.
For all his scoring ability, Anthony has experienced little success in the playoffs. That's why he sees this season as his best chance yet to win a championship.
"Once we do that I will have proven everything," he said.
Lee hasn't seen the Knicks win a title since he was a young teenager, but he's beginning to think more and more that Anthony is the right person to end that drought.
"He is the franchise player," Lee said. "He is the one that was born in Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York. He is the one that says, 'This is my team.' "
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