For Anthony, playoff salvation a round away

Carmelo Anthony hears what you say about LeBron James. How, in a week or two, the NBA will crown King James its newest MVP. How James now has his Cleveland Cavaliers fast-tracked toward a second Finals.

Anthony knows how you see Dwyane Wade. A champion. One of the game’s brightest stars. Shooting, scoring, clowning with Charles Barkley on TV, buying his mother a church.

Anthony also knows what you’re thinking: Just what exactly has Carmelo Anthony ever done?

“I’m like the forgotten kid right now,” Anthony says.

Anthony arrived almost six years ago with LeBron and D-Wade, shoulder to shoulder, ready to carry the NBA into its next generation. Once, he was considered the worthy rival to LeBron. For a brief (very brief) time, there was even some debate as to who would make the better pro.

But that was before a little pot turned up in Melo’s carry-on bag (his friend left it), before Anthony participated in a street-level video urging Baltimoreans to “stop snitching” (not the wisest cinematic endeavor), before he punched former Knicks guard Mardy Collins (“…not the example I want to set”), before he was arrested on a DUI charge (“truly sorry”). Oh, and that was before he failed to lift his Denver Nuggets out of the first round for five consecutive years.

The sports world has a way of forgiving its winners. A misplaced joint, one too many cocktails, even the occasional bar fight can be written off as youthful indiscretion, provided you perform on the court or on the field when it matters most. If you don’t win, you’re a Cincinnati Bengal.

So for all the mistakes Anthony has made during his six seasons in the NBA, nothing has worn on him more than his playoff failure.

“It’s still right here in my pocket,” he said last week. “It’s hanging on me.”

Anthony laughed. There isn’t a single player for whom these playoffs matter more. Win or lose, Kobe already has his three rings. LeBron will be able to hug his MVP trophy. Even Yao Ming, tormented by his own run of one-and-dones, can point to an unfortunate draw or Tracy McGrady’s absence if his Houston Rockets fail to advance.

For Anthony, there are no more excuses. The Nuggets have given him a wise, battle-tested point guard in Chauncey Billups. They’ve provided him his deepest bench, equipped with a spike-haired, shot-swatting backup center (Chris Andersen) and one of the league’s most feared (and unapologetic) shooters in J.R. Smith. They’ve even given him home-court advantage, opening the postseason on their own floor for the first time in 21 years.

No one expects the Nuggets to replace the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals, but they do need to win a round.

“With the team I have now, it’s like I’m born again,” Anthony said. “Things are fun now. Basketball is fun.”

Fun has never seemed to be much of an issue for Anthony. After the Nuggets traded for Allen Iverson two seasons ago, they played fast and, according to their NBA peers, partied faster. A few opposing executives even dreaded the Nuggets’ annual visit, fearful their own players would be swept up with the late-night frivolity.

The Nuggets’ hangover usually lasted until late April when they scattered for vacation. Nuggets coach George Karl downplays their inability to get out of the first round – “We’ve not had good matchups,” he says – but they sometimes didn’t have good matchups because they underachieved during the regular season. A year ago, they clawed just to get into the playoffs and then were promptly swept by the Lakers.

Anthony bickered with Karl at the end of that series, and it wasn’t long before he was hearing his name in possible trade scenarios. He now says he didn’t take the speculation too seriously, but his agent evidently did, seeking assurances from the Nuggets that Anthony wasn’t going to be moved.

As it turned out, the only traveling Anthony did was to China. He played well for the U.S. national team at the Beijing Olympics and left with a gold medal, a nice upgrade over the 2004 bronze he famously claimed to have thrown into a lake after his bench-ridden stay in Athens. When Anthony reported to the Nuggets’ training camp, Karl saw a different player.

“Carmelo’s experience was the direction of playing the game the right way and how to win big-time games,” Karl said. “Anytime you gain that experience in a playoff situation or gold-medal situation is helpful to young players. How to handle stress and pressure with dignity and humility is always a part of the process.”

Still, the Nuggets knew they would never get the most from Anthony unless they also gave him a guide. The A.I. experiment put fans in the seats and points on the scoreboard, but it wasn’t going to make them a contender in the playoffs. So Karl decided to junk the team’s go-go-go philosophy in training camp and place more of a premium on defense.

“Basically, for two years, the dumb coach tried to coach the game from the offensive end of the court, the Phoenix mentality,” Karl said. “…I was going insane.”

Karl’s neuroses, as they’re prone to do, also had long started to wear on the players. The Nuggets needed someone to listen to besides their coach. When the opportunity to swap Iverson for Billups came up during the season’s first week, the Nuggets jumped. No trade this season has been more beneficial to a team than Billups’ arrival in Denver.

“The Chauncey change was like when you’re playing blackjack and you have 12 and draw 9,” Karl said. “We couldn’t have picked up a better player.”

With Billups, the Nuggets’ offense slowed to a more deliberate pace. As the team’s shot selection improved, so did its defense. More than anything, Billups has held the Nuggets more accountable.

“One of the biggest things this team was lacking,” Billups said, was self-discipline.”

Anthony appears to have bought in. He scored just 13 points in the playoff opener, but celebrated as Billups went for 36 to lead the Nuggets’ rout of the New Orleans Hornets.

“I’m not really worrying about me,” Anthony said after the game. “I know what I can do out there.”

Anthony also knows what you’re thinking. He hasn’t done anything yet. D-Wade has his championship ring. LeBron could soon land one of his own.

But everyone’s got to start somewhere, right? Out of excuses, still haunted by playoffs past, Anthony’s now armed with a good team and an even better opportunity. This spring, maybe the forgotten kid gives us a reason to remember.

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