NEW YORK — He sat in his locker stall, upbeat and confident.
“Nah, it’s just muscular tightness,” he said. “Now, it feels much better.”
Those were amongst the final words Amar’e Stoudemire uttered to the press contingent in the Knicks’ locker room after last Saturday’s 101-79 victory over the Detroit Pistons.
On Monday – just two days later – it was revealed that Stoudemire has a bulging disk in his lower back and would miss at least two weeks. That 48-hour period was a microcosm of the Knicks’ 2011-2012 season. There have been some high highs and low lows. There’s been both flight and plight.
And although the Knicks have won eight of their last nine games – all under new coach Mike Woodson – heading into tonight’s showdown in Atlanta vs. the Hawks, the loss of Stoudemire hurts them. Big time.
Over the years, Knicks fans have come to know disappointment all too well. Stoudemire’s injury is more of the same.
But for Carmelo Anthony, it’s something totally different. For him, it’s a golden opportunity.
Since arriving on the scene last season, Anthony has been a polarizing figure amongst Knicks fans and members of the basketball media. If Anthony truly cared about winning – it was said – he would have sacrificed a few million dollars and signed with the Knicks as a free agent.
Instead, he leveraged his way to New York via a trade that cost Knicks fans players they coveted. Some fans thought Anthony was worth it, but many didn’t. Coming into this season, he had a lot to prove. Unfortunately, he has responded with career lows in both scoring (20.3 ppg) and field goal percentage (.403).
Anthony’s critics overlook his offseason surgeries and the effect of the lockout-condensed season. But what they do look at is a player who – while on the court – has visibly shown frustration with his teammates. They remember a player who himself admitted to not playing with maximum effort under Mike D’Antoni, and they see a player who has been labeled a “ball stopper” because he’s a more effective scorer when he’s creating his own shot off the dribble than when catching and shooting or moving without the ball.
In a New York minute, Anthony has been profiled and thus far, the evidence points to him being a selfish player. In certain circles, and even amongst members of the media, the term “overrated” has been thrown around.
Now, in a New York minute, he has the opportunity to earn the same universal adoration and respect that Stoudemire earned in his earliest Knicks days.
Stoudemire is loved because he accepted the challenge of turning things around in New York. To whom much is given, much is required. To him, much was given, and from him, much was acquired. Prior to the Anthony trade, Stoudemire exceeded even the highest expectations.
I’ve been around the block enough times to know that if you search hard enough and long enough, you can always find excuses. There’s a reason for everything. But at the end of the day, objective measures of team success – wins, losses, playoff appearances, and banners – are what truly separate the greats from the “coulda beens.”
It’s what separates the Karl Malones and the Tracy McGradys from the Tim Duncans and the Kobe Bryants.
What we don’t know is where Anthony fits. To this point, we just don’t know if he has what it takes to be even a Paul Pierce, much less a Kobe Bryant. Since the resignation of D’Antoni, he’s been a different player. And with an offensive scheme that plays to his strengths and a supporting cast capable of picking up the slack, the Knicks have gone 8-1.
However, until very recently, it seems as though the Knicks have mostly succeeded in spite of Anthony, not because of him. Quite simply, there have been far too few games this season in which he hasn’t been one of the two best players on the court for either team.
For a maximum salaried player who leveraged a trade to the team of his choice, and with Anthony’s potential, that’s just unacceptable.
If his recent play is any indication, though, Anthony may be turning a corner.
On Wednesday, the Knicks absolutely flattened the Orlando Magic. Anthony scored 25 points, shooting 9-of-15 from the field. He also chipped in five rebounds and six assists. That he got those numbers in only 26 minutes is what was most impressive. Led by his effort, the Knicks opened a 39-point lead and eventually won, 108-86.
The third quarter has been the Knicks’ Achilles heel this season. On this night, in the first two minutes of the period, Anthony scored eight points and had an assist. The Knicks had opened a 20-point lead, and even with 22 minutes left, the game was already over.
Since Woodson took over the coaching reins nine games ago, Anthony has been noticeably focused. He’s boxing out, he’s engaged, he’s exerting energy on the defensive end and even calling huddles. He’s led by example on both ends of the floor.
And best of all? He’s doing it at far less than 100 percent. He’s nursing injuries to his knee, wrist, and groin and is still recovering from offseason elbow surgery.
Even still, he’s been battling, fighting, and most importantly, winning. This Carmelo Anthony is who Knicks fans thought they were getting. He’s the guy they hope sticks around.
Here and now, he has the opportunity to show that he is.
In the absence of Stoudemire, Anthony will be the first and second offensive option for the Knicks. He will get the ball in the post; it’s up to him to make the right decisions.
Whether or not you define him as a superstar depends on what criteria you use. True superstars, it is said, affect the game on both ends of the floor. And Anthony must consistently do so if he is to ever get the respect he desires.
After a fairly poor season, there are doubts as to whether or not Anthony is as good as advertised. His prior success in Denver doesn’t prove that he can succeed in New York, where the lights shine brighter, the critics speak louder, and the expectations weigh heavier.
At 26-25, the Knicks are over .500 for the first time since they were 6-5 back on January 12. They have 15 games left and are only 2 1/2 games out of first place in the Atlantic Division. Winning it, sans Stoudemire, is a daunting task. But it’s not impossible.
Winning the division isn’t the be-all, end-all for Anthony. But playing well enough to win the division is. And yes, there’s a huge difference.
Last week, I wrote that Stoudemire should be the one leading the Knicks since Anthony was obviously playing at less than 100 percent. Now, with him nursing his back, all eyes are on Anthony, who has an incredible opportunity. Anthony will get more touches, will be leaned on to provide more leadership, and will have to carry more of a load for these Knicks.
“I don’t have a choice,” Anthony said after asked if he could lead the Knicks without Stoudemire. “A situation like this requires me to step my game up a little bit more, take it up a notch.”
More like a few notches.
Anthony decided he wanted New York. Now, he must accept everything that came with it. With Stoudemire sidelined and the Knicks still in a tight playoff race, all eyes are on him.
It’s time for us to see Carmelo Anthony at his best.
Opportunity awaits; For his sake, I hope he’s ready.