After missing three games following an awkward stumble and fall against the Cleveland Cavaliers that apparently aggravated an already "stiff and sore" right knee, Carmelo Anthony returned to the lineup for the New York Knicks on Monday. Well, actually, that's not true — a pale imitation of Anthony took the floor at Oracle Arena last night, a version that featured precious little of the lift, quickness, offensive aggression and touch we're accustomed to seeing from the NBA's second-leading scorer.
Anthony struggled his way to 14 points on 4 for 15 shooting in 33 1/2 minutes of play as the Knicks suffered a 92-63 beatdown at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. His lack of lateral quickness and burst was evident not only on the offensive end, where he struggled to gain separation from Golden State defenders, but also on D; while you wouldn't call Melo a plus defender, he was a decided minus on Monday, beaten multiple times off the bounce and in the post by the likes of David Lee, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson.
Carmelo's sluggishness wasn't the only reason the Knicks got punked, of course. There were plenty of other places to point fingers — the 21 terrible pre-questionable-ejection minutes from J.R. Smith, for example, or the continued pointlessness of starting James White to do nothing for five or so minutes. Maybe the inability of Jason Kidd and Steve Novak to hit anything (0 for 9 combined, including 0 for 7 from 3-point range) or the putrid shot-making overall (take out Chris Copeland's 5 for 11 mark and the rest of the Knicks made just 24.2 percent of their shots). And, of course, New York's love affair with going under high screens against knockdown shooters like Thompson and Stephen Curry (49 combined points on 18 for 36 shooting, including 10 for 17 from deep), along with myriad other defensive breakdowns.
A clearly hampered Anthony certainly didn't help matters, though, and a Knicks team that can no longer rely on offensive infusions from two-time debridement patient Amar'e Stoudemire really can't afford a fractured, compromised facsimile of Anthony. They might not have to; after all, Monday's performance came after a week on the shelf, opening the door to the "rust" explanation. But with the fluid, stiffness and soreness all still there behind his right knee, it's at least possible that this might be the new normal for Melo ... and, perhaps worst of all, nobody really seems to know whether it is or isn't.
"There’s no pain at all. Just stiffness," Anthony said at San Francisco's Olympic Club. "Nobody really can give me an exact answer on it. Because there's no pain or ligament damage. Just fluid in the back of the knee that's prevented me from hyperextending my leg. Nothing of that nature. None of that. No surgery.
"Just a matter of getting tight in the back of the knee. Nothing in the front of the knee. No pain. No soreness. Just some irritation."
As Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News notes, the absence of an explanation for why the fluid is pooling behind the knee sure seems troubling. So does the uncertainty, reported by Newsday's Al Iannazzone, as to whether Anthony has even "undergone [any] more tests than the MRI he had at some point before the Cavaliers game." (The combination of no explanation and no clear diagnosis also makes it difficult to understand how Anthony can know that "no surgery" will be required.)
Ditto for the news that, after consulting with the Knicks' medical staff, Anthony decided against having the fluid drained out because "I'm not a big fan of getting needles." (This has led to some head-scratching over how he's endured this much tattoo work over the years.) And Anthony's apparent self-assessment that "I don't think I'll ever be 100 percent" again this season. And Anthony's tracing of the knee injury back to the hyperextension he suffered on Christmas Day, except that what's hurt now is his right knee, while that injury was to his left. (Still, his production has dropped off pretty considerably since that Dec. 25 injury.)
The sum of these troubling, curious bits leaves Anthony in a precarious position — at this point, he told Howard Beck of the New York Times, the approach appears to be "just trying to get through it, just figure it out, kind of see what I can do, what I can’t do." Well, on Monday, the "can't do" list included "get more than a few inches of air on your jumper" and "slide your feet quickly enough to stay in front of David Lee," while the "can do" list was limited, basically, to "do a nice job on the offensive glass" (where five of Melo's 10 rebounds came).
It was a grim effort virtually from the start, one that had announcers and fans remarking on how Anthony didn't look like himself nearly from the opening tip ... after which Anthony played the entire first quarter, sat for the first four minutes of the second, and then played the entire rest of the first half despite A) looking sort of like death and B) Knicks coach Mike Woodson having said prior to the game that he'd try to limit Anthony's minutes as he worked his way back.
Woodson's extended riding of Anthony is nothing new — Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal detailed it last week before circling back to the question of whether Anthony should slide from the power forward position at which he had so much success earlier this season back down to his more natural small forward position to save him a bit of a beating. It seemed exceptionally ridiculous on Monday, though, especially when — after subbing a clearly laboring Melo out with the Knicks down 27 with 2:14 left in the third quarter — Woodson put him back in with the Warriors' lead down to 20 less than three minutes into the fourth quarter.
Why did Woodson reinsert Anthony with the Knicks down huge after he'd already played 30 minutes and was moving around like a man who absolutely shouldn't have been rushed back?
"I was hoping maybe we can make a run," the coach said, according to Berman.
If that sounds pennywise, pound-foolish and potentially dangerous to you ... well, then, you're probably a Knicks fan, too. And maybe the scariest thing of all? It's probably going to keep happening.
Woodson conceded to Beck that there's "a strong possibility" that neither Stoudemire nor Rasheed Wallace return this season, but seems opposed to cutting Wallace loose to open a roster spot that could be filled by another healthy body. Woodson continues to refuse to play Copeland unless forced to, because, while the 28-year-old can score the ball, he continues to struggle within the Knicks' defensive scheme. Woodson continues to start White despite his mostly non-NBA play, continues to turn to Kurt Thomas despite defenses basically ignoring him, and continues to favor Kidd over reserve Pablo Prigioni, even on nights when Kidd can't hit and Prigioni's dribble penetration could make things a bit easier for other shooters.
All of which is to say: After an early-season stretch of brilliant decision-making and string-pulling that had New York looking like a much more multifaceted offensive machine than the one that ended last season, Woodson now seems to be making decisions that make the Knicks easier to defend and, naturally, more reliant on their precious few shot creators. One of them, Smith, is a 40 percent shooter who's about as wild as wild cards get. Another, Stoudemire, is now off the board. A third, Felton, is prone to stretches where he either can't hit the broad side of a barn himself or, as was the cast last night, just stops attacking (zero field-goal attempts, two free-throw attempts, one assist, one turnover in the second half).
That leaves Anthony, the guy whose knee might be a mystery but whose role isn't — carry us. Maybe we can make a run before the end of the season, and hold off the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics despite having 12 of the last 21 on the road and 13 of 21 against .500-or-better teams. And maybe, if we do, you'll still be able to run when you get there.
Nobody really seems to know for sure, though, and that casts an awful lot about these Knicks into doubt.
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