Anthony has been consistently great at one thing since he entered the league. He scores. Anthony has averaged at least 20 points per game in all 10 of his NBA seasons, and in his last three games, he has averaged 29.7 points.
That could be very bad news for the New York Knicks.
It all comes back to that particular set of skills. Anthony is a scorer, but not all scorers are the same. When Kevin Durant is at the top of his game, he lifts his team, because the Oklahoma City forward can score within the Thunder’s free-flowing offense. Anthony is not that type of player. He is a slowdown, pound-the-rock isolation player for whom the offense must come to a screeching halt for him to operate.
There have been exceptions to that for Anthony, on occasion. In 2008-09, Anthony let his scoring average drop six whole points from a career-high of 28.9 points just two years earlier. Not coincidentally, his Nuggets advanced to the Western Conference Finals, the farthest an Anthony-led team has ever gone in the playoffs. For a brief run energized by Mike D’Antoni and Jeremy Lin last spring, Anthony again eschewed his ball-stopping tendencies, as he did through the first nine games of this season.
But as of Wednesday’s game in Dallas, the bad, old Anthony showed signs of coming back. Entering Monday’s inter-borough clash with the Nets, the Knicks had lost two out of three while Anthony was filling up the box score. His gaudy statistics gave great fuel to his apologists, who could claim that putting up such strong numbers proved that the losses to the Mavericks and Rockets were not his fault. But anyone who has watched Anthony over the years knows that the more he scores, the more poorly it typically goes for his team.
Anthony put up only 16 shots against the Mavs, but he committed seven turnovers and fouled out in a little more than 40 minutes. The third quarter set the tone for what was to come in the next game. Anthony was the only offensive threat the Knicks had in a horrid 12 minutes in which they were outscored 35-26. He scored 11 points on 4-for-6 shooting and grabbed four rebounds but also had four turnovers and picked up three personal fouls. Giving up 35 points in a quarter is bad, no matter what happens on offense. But Anthony apparently saw what he typically sees in such stretches: I’m scoring, my teammates aren’t, so the best remedy must be for me to take more shots.
Not surprisingly, Anthony went for broke in Houston two nights later. He fired up 24 shots, including a season-high 12 threes, and dropped 37 points on the Rockets. But thanks in large part to Anthony’s seven turnovers, Lin and the Rockets earned the win, and New York had its first losing streak of the season. Lin, with his 13 points, seven rebounds and three assists, arguably was as effective as Anthony. The Rockets point guard capitalized on the Knicks’ desire to embarrass their former teammate, deftly finding open teammates when the overly aggressive Knicks defenders rotated too hard in his direction. Whoever Lin found often made an extra pass to yet another teammate for an open shot, which is why Lin only had three dimes to show for his work.
Anthony and the Knicks got back on a winning track Sunday against the Pistons, which is a game not really worth analyzing because it was the Pistons, and beating them is exactly what a decent team should do. (The Celtics did not, but that is another story.) Anyway, the Knicks won because they rediscovered the absurd 3-point accuracy that carried them through the first month of the season, burying Detroit with 17 treys on 33 attempts.
The point is not that Anthony should stop scoring. Much has been made about whether the Knicks can keep clicking when Amare Stoudemire returns, but Stoudemire’s mere absence or presence is not the problem. The problem is that Stoudemire represents the Knicks of the recent past, who alternated isolation possessions and focused on offense at the expense of defense. That is a problem of attitude, not personnel. If Anthony reverts to that style, it does not matter if Stoudemire is healthy or not.
Some players are fortunate to be able to utilize the full potential of their talents to benefit their teams. LeBron James could go scoreless and still be the best player on the court by a mile. Rajon Rondo has reached double-digit assists in 37 straight games, and by definition that streak means he is making his teammates’ jobs easier. Even Kobe Bryant, the iso extraordinaire, was one of the league’s toughest defenders in his prime.
In that way, Anthony might almost be a victim of his own skills. He could score 50 points a game if he really tried, and even at his most restrained, he can still score 30 with relative ease. At times, though, the Knicks would be better without Anthony operating at his extreme best as a scorer. He was almost too good against the Rockets, leading his teammates to hand him the ball, retreat to a corner and watch him go to work. That approach lends itself to high point totals for Anthony, but it marginalizes Steve Novak, J.R. Smith and Jason Kidd as shooters and takes the ball out of the hands of Raymond Felton, who has typically been effective operating the pick and roll.
Unlike Neeson’s character in Taken, Anthony has to pull back the reins at least sometimes. (Seriously, is there anybody in that movie that Bryan Mills doesn’t kill?) Anthony’s singular scoring skills this season have been as prominent as ever, but for the first time in a long time, he does not need to play the hero every game. With all the talent around him, Anthony must continue to trust the system and his teammates for the Knicks to remain among the league’s elite.