There is one game, and one game only, that should immediately come to mind when thinking about the 2012 NBA Playoffs. That game would be Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. That was the game where LeBron’s legacy was on the line. That was the game filled with pre-game talk of the Heat being broken up if they lost. After the Celtics took it to the Heat in Game 5, all the newspapers, blogs, and radio shows were proclaiming the demise of the new-look Heat, just two short years into the experiment. LeBron, in Year 9 of his career, needed to put up or shut up.
Well, 45 points, 15 rebounds, and 5 assists later, LeBron put up one of the biggest games in NBA postseason history. It was, and very well may forever remain, the game of his life, given the circumstances. He avoided another heartbreaking postseason exit against Boston, forced a Game 7 at home, and eventually won his first title. Then he won Olympic gold as Team USA’s crunch time guy. And then he was named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. Needless to say, showing up in Game 6 of the ECF worked out well for LeBron.
What does this have to do with tonight’s Game 6? In regards to another member of the fabled 2003 draft class, a whole hell of a lot. I can’t help but place Carmelo Anthony in a similar situation to the one LeBron faced last year. Game 6. In the (Boston) Garden. Coming off an embarrassing Game 5 loss at home. Your team relying on you to step up and carry them. Granted, this is only the first round, not the third. And Carmelo’s season won’t be over if he loses tonight. But there really is no time like the present for Melo to man up and prove that he’s the dominant player he surely thinks he is.
Like LeBron, tonight’s Game 6 against Boston can potentially be legacy-altering for Carmelo. What makes the game so intriguing is that for all the talk that’s ramped up over the past few days, there’s really no telling what the outcome will be, and even after tonight’s game, we still may not know what to make of Carmelo. Before we get into what tonight’s game will mean, let’s go over what we do know.
This is Carmelo’s tenth year in the league. He’s 28 years old, turning 29 at the end of the month. In basketball terms, he is squarely in his prime, at what should be the absolute height of his abilities. He is currently, along with Kevin Durant, one of the two most gifted pure scorers in the world. The man was born to score the basketball. This is his time to assert himself either as a potential all time great, or to shrink from the moment and allow a ton of room for doubt to creep in. Again, this is not all going down tonight, but it’s impossible to watch tonight’s game and not have this in mind.
Here’s what else we know: Carmelo has never had a full season where he shot 50% on field goals and has never shot above 38% on three point field goals. I understand that he improved markedly this year in the long range department, but those are the facts. In his playoff career, he’s shooting 41% FG and 32% 3FG. That’s understandable, as he’s always asked to be the primary scorer for his team and shoots a ton of shots. He’s never missed the playoffs, but has, at least as of today, only escaped the first round once. That’s only one more time than Tracy McGrady, and no, I’m not counting McGrady’s gift-wrapped first round victory from RC Buford and Gregg Popovich last week.
Melo has made six All Star teams, and this year will make his sixth All NBA Team, most likely the All NBA First Team, which will be a first for him. Many consider him a top 5 player, and he will likely finish in the top 5 of the MVP voting along with LeBron, Durant, Chris Paul, and Tony Parker (those would be the first four guys on my ballot). Again, this is his time to prove himself as an all time great, a guy who will have a spot on that First Team for the next three to four years. Or, it’s his time to shrink.
Should the Knicks lose tonight and again on Sunday, it’d be an unmitigated disaster. To become the first team to blow a 3-0 series lead would inevitably cause some heads to roll on 34th Street. Who goes? Mike Woodson? The old vets (Kidd, K-Mart, Camby)? JR? A’mare is going to be there. So…will it be Carmelo? If the Knicks blow this series, would they somehow try and trade away the reigning scoring champion?
I doubt it. As a pessimistic Celtics fan, that last paragraph was wishful thinking on my part. But let’s look at the point of the paragraph, and the real question at hand: Is Carmelo Anthony ever going to be the best player on a championship team?
At the moment, the answer is a resounding “no.” Never mind that he’s only gotten past the first round one time. Look at the way he plays. People compare him to Bernard King, someone who never won a title and had to wait 20 years after retiring to get into the Hall of Fame. While it’s usually a comparison made on endearing terms, is it one Carmelo is happy with? I highly doubt it. And, if he is, well, that tells us all we need to know about Carmelo. Let’s assume he’s not thrilled with the comparison and that he wants to, unlike Bernard, win a title. Conventional wisdom tells us that currently being a top 5 player, or damn close to it, Melo should be the best player on whatever team he plays for during the rest of his prime, which should be another four to five years. Does anyone see him leading a team to a title in that span?
Ignore the fact that he’s going to have to go through LeBron, Derrick Rose, Durant, Steph Curry, and other great players in order to reach the mountaintop. Go back to his style of play and think, really think hard, about what kind of team he can win with. For the life of me, I cannot figure it out. This Knicks team is probably going to win against Boston and has a great shot at beating Indiana. They could give Miami a run, but it’s unlikely that they make the finals. I’ve been saying during this entire series that the Knicks are a house of cards, and I stand by it. Carmelo has his “best” shot at the finals this year, and it’s on a team that’s built around three point shots and isolation. Nothing more. There’s not a lot of motion. They rarely go to Tyson Chandler for offense. JR Smith shoots threes. Jason Kidd shoots threes. Ray Felton shoots threes. Carmelo shoots everything. It’s either Melo going 1-on-1 or someone else shooting a three, and little else. That’s a gimmick, one that won’t last.
Maybe he needs to be with a big man like Dwight. Maybe he needs a point guard like Rose. Maybe he needs a co-scorer, a Wade to his LeBron. For Melo’s sake, I’d really like to see something like that happen for him, because it would tell us whether or not he’s serious about winning, and whether he’s capable of altering his style enough to win. I think he needs a strong willed point guard, more of a Rose than a Rondo, though, because Rondo would just defer shots the way the Knicks do now. An offensively gifted big man would be nice, although I don’t see Melo feeding the post. He’d rather post up himself (where he’s excellent, by the way). Put me down as someone who thinks he needs a Rose or Westbrook type to take over when Melo’s shots aren’t falling. But for now, he’s got the Knicks and their bombs away offense.
Yet, this bombs away offense is exactly what Melo seems to love because it revolves around him. I can’t picture him switching places with Durant, despite the fact that they compare favorably as scorers. Durant’s a better shooter, that’s a given. But watch them both play. Durant passes the ball. He knows when to defer to his teammates. He plays with another top 10-12 player in the league and, despite what critics say about their chemistry, they made the finals last year over a great Spurs team when Durant was 23 years old. It’s unfathomable to picture Carmelo sharing the floor, and the ball, with Westbrook, despite that being the best chance for his title aspirations. Would he share with Klay Thompson, the way Curry does? I doubt it. Hell, even Kobe knows when and how to share with Pau, and that’s worked out pretty well. But to this point in his career, Carmelo does not know how to share. He’s not proven himself capable of passing the ball or helping to generate offense for anyone other than himself. In this series, through five games, he’s taken 137 shots and dished out a mere six assists. He’s shooting under 40% from the field. I cannot envision a scenario in which the best player on a championship team has numbers like that, where the best player can toss up games of 10-35 and 8-24 from the field. Amazingly, the Knicks were in both of those games in the final few minutes, but that’s more of a reflection of the anemic Boston offense. If even five of those misses, in either of those games, are shots that go to a teammate, the Knicks would have swept. If you want to say that he’s by far the best option on the Knicks, go right ahead. Swap Paul, Parker, or Rose for Felton, with dreams of the star point guard taking those shots instead of Melo. Would it happen? Would Carmelo really pass to someone else? Well, those point guards might be wise enough to not pass the ball to Melo in the first place, but once they did, I can’t see him giving it up.
Tonight’s game is one part ascending to greatness, one part avoiding potential disgrace (which can’t fully occur until Sunday). Melo is at a crossroads tonight, and should he conquer the demons, his reward is…getting out of round one? That’s it? Yikes. I’m sorry, but top 5 players, going against a team that gets left for dead on a weekly basis, should not struggle like this in the first round. Durant’s circumstances have changed, Paul is facing a deep Grizzlies team, and LeBron and Parker handled their business. What’s Carmelo’s excuse? His only excuse for not already winning the series is that he’s a ball hog who shot his team out of Game 4 and Game 5. He’s never going to play defense, so the least he could do would be to contribute on offense in ways besides shooting. But there’s nothing. Absolutely nothing else on offense besides the scoring, which hasn’t been there the past two games.
Transcendent players adapt. They have for decades. If they’re primary duty, usually scoring, isn’t being handled, they find other ways to help their teams win. They pass. They set screens. They ramp up the defense. It’s not rocket science, but Melo hasn’t yet figured it out. For all I know, he’ll go 15-22 tonight, score 42 points and lead to the Knicks to a blowout win. That’d be great for the Knicks and their fans. But until he’s able to consistently do that four out of every seven games against good teams, he and his teams are going nowhere. And that’s because in ten years playing in the NBA, he hasn’t learned how to help his team win in other ways.
Bringing it all back to Game 6, I cannot wait to see how this plays out. I hope the Celtics can make some shots, have a pulse on offense, and really push the Knicks, especially Carmelo, to respond. I’d love to see the game unfold that way, and ideally end with a Boston victory. Regardless of how things play out, I will be enthralled by Carmelo Anthony. The Celtics are old, tired, and ready to be beaten. Carmelo is young, spry, and ready to make the leap. To hell with the funeral talk and the other garbage that’s gone on the past couple days. This should be a no-brainer: the great player should have a great game and lead his team to victory. It’s so simple, yet seemingly so far from becoming a reality. Carmelo, the way his game is currently constituted, cannot be the best player on a championship team. Tonight, he can take a big step forward in the process of changing that.