In the closing seconds of a tightly contested Sunday matchup against the team with the league's best record, the New York Knicks needed their lone available superstar to live up to his billing. Carmelo Anthony did. Twice.
Anthony, a 31 percent 3-point shooter on the season, drilled one long ball with 11 seconds remaining in regulation to knot the Knicks' Sunday afternoon game against the Eastern Conference-leading Chicago Bulls at 91. A Chicago attempt at a winner drew air, sending the game to overtime ... where Anthony again hit from downtown late, this time with 8.2 seconds remaining, to give the Knicks a much-needed 100-99 win over the visiting Bulls.
The win, combined with the Boston Celtics' 103-79 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday, pushed the Knicks ahead of the Sixers into seventh place in the Eastern Conference. (Both New York and Philly stand at 29-27, just one game ahead of the surging ninth-place Milwaukee Bucks, but the Knicks hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Sixers after having taken two of three from Philly this season.)
The nationally televised win was huge for a New York team scratching and clawing for its second straight playoff berth — especially since it came over a top-seeded Bulls team that the Knicks could face in the postseason's opening round — but it came with some caveats.
For starters, the Knicks needed 53 minutes to barely eke out a one-point win at home in a game they led by 21 points in the first quarter. Sure, this is the NBA, the Bulls are elite and everybody makes a run, but morning-after hosannas should remember that the Knicks let multiple big leads evaporate, found themselves down 91-81 late in the fourth and needed a miracle 10-0 run just to stay alive. Those kinds of things don't tend to be sustainable in 1-vs.-8 or 2-vs.-7 playoff matchups. (This, in part, is why Harvey Araton of The New York Times thinks the Knicks' only chance of postseason success is catching the Boston Celtics, who hold a three-game lead in the Atlantic Division with 10 games to go, to avoid first-round faceoffs with the likes of the Bulls or Miami Heat.)
Likewise, 'Melo doesn't get the chance to play hero without Chicago stars Luol Deng and Derrick Rose missing four straight free throws in the final 34 seconds to keep the margin at three points and within one possession of all-square. Deng is a 79.1 percent free-throw shooter on the season; Rose has an 81.5 percent mark. The misses, while critical and timely, were gifts.
Plus, the Bulls — who turn the ball over at the league's seventh-lowest rate, according to Hoopdata — were were uncharacteristically loose with the ball on Sunday. They coughed it up on nearly 20 percent of their possessions, owing in part to Rose posting twice as many turnovers (eight) as assists (four) in the matinee matchup.
The reigning league MVP showed a bit of rust in his first appearance for the Bulls in nearly a month, struggling to get on track in the first half after missing 12 games with a groin injury and needing 26 shots to score 29 points. Some credit for that, of course, must go to the Knicks (who force turnovers on a higher share of possessions than any team besides the Memphis Grizzlies) and especially Iman Shumpert, who has developed into one of the league's better on-ball defenders during his first NBA season. The rookie guard led New York with four steals on Sunday and gave Rose headaches when the two were matched up. Still, though, the combination of Rose's rust and a bit of an outlier in terms of team turnovers helped tighten this one up.
Now, having said all that: Bra-freakin'-vo, Carmelo Anthony.
Without star running buddy Amar'e Stoudemire, still sidelined with a bulging disk in his lower back, and starting point guard Jeremy Lin, who's unlikely to return from left knee surgery in time for the playoffs, the Knicks' offense has had to run through Anthony for the last seven games, and on Sunday, 'Melo put up his best performance of that run. He poured in 43 points on 16-of-31 shooting in the Easter Sunday win, his highest point total since coming to the Knicks in a much-debated nine-player trade with the Denver Nuggets last February, to go with seven rebounds, three assists and just two turnovers in nearly 47 minutes of floor time.
Much like 'Melo did in his previous highest-scoring game with the Knicks — his 42-point, 17-rebound, six-assist epic in a loss to the C's in Game 2 of their first-round series last year — he did it from everywhere, according to the shot location stats in Hoopdata's advanced box score. He got to the basket, taking 11 attempts at the rim and making six; he had his mid-range game working, hitting 5 of 10 tries from between 10 and 15 feet out; and he was 4 of 5 from beyond the arc, including the money-on-the-table triples with the clock winding down in the fourth and in overtime. And the Knicks needed every last one of those shots, every one of those bursts of brilliance, to put away the East's top seed.
With Stoudemire and Lin on the shelf, 'Melo has gone on an absolute tear over the past seven games, averaging 29.9 points on 49 percent shooting, including a 39.3 percent mark from 3-point land and an 82 percent rate from the charity stripe, to go with 7.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. Despite dominating the ball more than he had previously this season, he's averaging just three turnovers a game over that stretch, during which the Knicks are 5-2. If he's still suffering any ill effects from the groin injury that hobbled him a couple of weeks ago, he's sure not showing it; he's producing at his highest level of the season at a time when the Knicks need just that sort of effort.
More than a year after coming to New York, Anthony finally had one of those "make the Garden go nuts" moments that Knicks fans (like myself) were hoping his trade would bring. The Knicks will need more of them over the next two weeks if they are to make the postseason, and plenty more soon after if they intend to stay there.
Is the video above not working for you? Feel free to peruse Anthony's fourth-quarter triple, his OT game-winner and a rundown of his 43-point performance elsewhere, thanks to our friends at the National Basketball Association.