Liking Carmelo Anthony more because he’s ‘tough’ would be dumb

The New York Knicks beat the hell out of the Orlando Magic on Wednesday night, a fact that pleased me, a Knicks fan living in Brooklyn, to no end. Steve Novak continued to be Mobb Deep's people's champ, rookie Iman Shumpert had his best game as a Knick, and Carmelo Anthony fought through his groin injury to give interim coach Mike Woodson's team exactly the kind of star turn it needed to take the will of the Eastern Conference's No. 3 seed.

A lot of writers noticed the fact that 'Melo had one of his best games of the season despite battling through injury. One of them, ESPN New York's Ian O'Connor, wrote Thursday in praise of Anthony's performance, detailing how gritting out the groin injury not only dovetailed with "the city's no-pain, no-gain ethos," but also could help the beleaguered small forward "win back New York's complete trust."

Amare Stoudemire was out, and so was Jeremy Lin. Tyson Chandler would have to wrestle Dwight Howard with a bum wrist, and Baron Davis would have to run the point with a sore hamstring and other achy, breaky parts.

Anthony couldn't possibly sit this one out. [...] It's almost April, and Anthony knows he'll go down as the face of an unmitigated disaster if he doesn't at least carry this team to May. [...]

"I just want to step up," Anthony said. "That's it. I've got to take on that responsibility to try and win these basketball games."

None of these things are wrong. A Knicks team without two of its best offensive options and whose best player — and if you have any doubt that Tyson Chandler is the Knicks' best player, you haven't been watching at all this season — had to bang with a force of nature all night needed not only all hands on deck, but also the kind of commanding offensive performance that 'Melo can provide.

With less than a month remaining in the regular season, the Knicks need wins and the New York offense needs a focal point; with Stoudemire sidelined for at least two to four weeks with a bulging disk in his lower back, responsibility for both will fall to Anthony. And after looking like a hatchetman on the heels of the intra-Garden war with ousted coach Mike D'Antoni — no matter how many times the star forward says it didn't go down like that, that's the way it has been and will be perceived — the only way for 'Melo to clean the dirt off his rep is to play the conquering hero, whether his groin's barking or not, because history's written by the victors.

Here's the thing, though:

That narrative works really well when the wounded soldier digging deep for that extra bit of wherewithal pops for 25 points in 26 minutes, helps stake his squad to a 39-point lead against a Magic side that looked disinterested for large swaths of the second and third quarters, and rides his exercise bike off into the sunset with the Knicks' first signature win since Linsanity left us all breathless. But what if the injured guy just, you know, sucked?

What if, instead of hitting 9 of 15 from the floor, 'Melo hit his now-depressingly customary 6 of 15 or worse, with the lingering nether-region pain taking lift off his jumper and sapping the explosiveness from his first step? What if he let the ball stick when it reached him rather than swinging it for dimes? If Anthony was as ineffective as he's been throughout most of this season, would we still be calling him a courageous leader for gutting it out? Or would we be saying, "Get this gimpy dude who can't make a shot off the court"? Given the vaunted patience of New York sports fans, I've got a sneaking suspicion it'd be the latter.

Let's take it a step further. What if Anthony gets an entry pass from Baron Davis, faces up on Quentin Richardson in the high post, jab-steps and shreds like 11 different weakened strands of crotch-adjacent muscle because he's trying to prove he's a tough guy with shoulders like Atlas? Do we applaud him then? Do we hold him up as a tougher, cooler, more robustly masculine sort because he was out there competing rather than sitting one out and getting healthy like some kind of weak-willed, cowardly smartypants who's not too tough to get concussions? (Whoops. Got my peanut butter and jelly all mixed up. Apologies.)

That kind of attitude might be shared by plenty of sports fans enthralled with the notion of athletes being big tough guys who fight and fight and fight, but when you think about it, it's dumb. Yes, the Knicks needed someone to score points Wednesday night and help win a game against a better team. But if Carmelo Anthony was too hurt to play, should he have played anyway, just because? Was there really "no way" he could miss this game, no matter what? Would we be happier with him for trying to play and injuring himself more seriously than we would be with him for trying to get as well as he possibly can for the beastly slate the Knicks will face over the next two weeks?

It seems like a lot of people would answer yes to that question, but why? Why in sports is discretion NOT the better part of valor?

Anyway, the "lauding Carmelo for gutting it out" angle is, at best, a red herring. You know why Knicks fans were thrilled with 'Melo's performance on Wednesday night? Because he finally actually performed.

He hit at least 50 percent of his field-goal attempts for just the 10th time in 41 games this season, and hit better than half his tries for just the sixth. He pressed the action and got to the line early. He had more assists than turnovers for the first time in six games. He showed the inside-out offensive gifts — that ruthless efficiency on the bully block, that one-dribble pirouette to the rim, that stroke from the wing beyond the arc — that we're so accustomed to seeing from him but that we've so rarely seen this season.

He looked and produced like the most gifted offensive player on the floor (which, squabbling over top-10 or top-20 or top-400 rankings aside, he actually is on many nights). I don't at all doubt that Carmelo Anthony is in very real pain and that he was performing in spite of it Wednesday night, but what stirred the Garden's heart wasn't some act of "Chariots of Fire"-soundtracked slow-mo heroism — it was buckets, defense and effort, all of which would have made New Yorkers gush just as much if Anthony was in pristine working order. (And all of which might have saved Mike D'Antoni's job if deployed, oh, say, a month ago, but now I'm tilting at windmills.)

All the B.S. Empire State exceptionalist talk about tough-guy trials doesn't mean a damn thing if you're not actually playing well. Anthony played well Wednesday night, and the Knicks won, and people were happy about it. I'm sure lots of fans viewed him as in some way essentially more impressive or "tougher" because he did it while hurt, but that's kind of dumb; in reality, the important part is the hitting of shots, the grabbing of rebounds and the passing to open teammates. More of that, please.


Oh, one more thing, and this is more for any journalists who might have clicked on the wrong link and ended up here by mistake: Let's all stop invoking Willis Reed when talking about Carmelo Anthony's groin injury, OK?

I understand that when discussing the Knicks, a star, an injury and playing through pain, Reed is the end-all reference point. But Reed fought through a torn thigh muscle in 1970 — with comparatively barbaric training and treatment techniques, and damn sure with no exercise bike in the wings to get and stay loose — to play against Wilt [EXPLETIVE] Chamberlain in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Carmelo's groin is tweaked. Again, I don't intend to denigrate suffering, and this is not a my-pain-and-sadness-is-more-sad-and-painful-than-yours situation, but let's not minimalize what Reed did with faint comparisons.