Carmelo Anthony was on the marquee, he was on the stage and he was on the foul line with the game needing two simple free throws to seal it up. And that’s when it began, a collective embrace in the form of a chorus of “Me-lo! Me-lo!” from 19,763 delirious fans who, like him, realized that the moment they’d been waiting for had finally arrived.
“That was a hell of a moment,” Anthony said. “For the fans to react the way that they did, to give me that ovation they did, that was exciting.”
Anthony had 27 points, two shy of the franchise record for a debut, and 10 rebounds in the Knicks’ 114-108 win over the Milwaukee Bucks. It wasn’t an efficient effort — he shot 10-for-25 from the field — but it got the job done for a Knicks team that, with 27 games left in the season, is looking to clinch its first playoff berth since 2004.
And with Anthony now joining Amar’e Stoudemire, they’re looking to do much more in the near future.
“This is what we wanted,” Stoudemire said. “We definitely wanted to build a team to compete for a title. I think that bringing in the pieces that we did is definitely a great step toward that.”
Anthony and Stoudemire, who are both in the top six in scoring in the NBA, provide a 1-2 scoring punch that only the Miami Heat, with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, can boast.
But the addition of veteran point guard Chauncey Billups in this trade cannot be overlooked. Billups, even at 34, is still a high-end player and, though he doesn’t run the ball up the floor nearly as much as the departed Raymond Felton, he is a much better shooter (44.1 percent from three-point range this season) and moves the ball extremely well.
And the savvy Madison Square Garden crowd certainly made note of Billups’ value, as it serenaded him with a chorus of “Chaun-cey Bil-lups!” late in the game. Billups had 21 points, eight assists and six rebounds, with just two turnovers, in 33:10.
Everyone knows how much Anthony has embraced the move to New York — he called Stoudemire at 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, after he got official word that the three-team, 13-player trade was completed to talk about where to live — but Billups was brokenhearted. The Denver native made it clear he wanted to finish his career with the Nuggets and possibly move into a front office position after he retired. Instead, he had to tell his wife and three daughters that he was going to move across the country.
But there are moves to cities and then there are moves to New York City. Billups made it clear he was “not at all” disappointed with the trade. “I’m excited about the challenge,” he said.
So is Mike D’Antoni. The offense-minded coach now has two prolific scorers to feature, though figuring out how to get them to share the ball and yet still maintain their own flow will have to be done on the fly. The Knicks play 18 games in March with little time for practice.
“That depends on the players,” D’Antoni said. “And if they come in here and want to win, they will figure out how to play. It’s just a little bit like (the Heat) is doing. … That’s how it is, to figure out how to win. And whatever it takes, if they’re open to that, then we’ll figure that out.”
Defense is another issue altogether. Billups is tough, but it’s asking a lot to ask him to keep up with some of the young guards in the East, especially the likes of Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo. Anthony’s defense is often maligned and, aside from his shot-blocking prowess, Stoudemire, too, has never been much of a defender.
Add to that the fact that the Knicks are small — the 6-10 Stoudemire and 6-10 Ronny Turiaf are the tallest players on the roster — and that creates many concerns in the paint.
But perhaps the first step toward facing your issues on defense is to admit you have an issue on defense.
“We all know this is a high-power offense. We know that we can score 120 points a game if we really wanted to,” Anthony said. “But that’s not going to win games at the end of the season.”
They still have a bit of a honeymoon to enjoy before the New York crowd, which invented the “D-fense!” chant, gets restless. The Garden buzzed like it hasn’t in years. Optimism is high. The Knicks are another step closer to taking on the Heat and the Celtics. They have their first two pieces, and perhaps the third one awaits in 2012, when All-Star guard Chris Paul can become a free agent.
Remember, it was Paul who made that famous toast at Anthony’s wedding last July, when he suggested that he and Anthony join Stoudemire in New York “to form our own Big Three.” It didn’t happen in one fell swoop the way it did for the Heat last July, but the process is certainly underway for a once-proud franchise that has suffered through a decade of losing.
“New York needed a moment like this,” Anthony said. “Like Amar’e said, New York basketball is back.”
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