NEW YORK -- Carmelo Anthony eased his way into the game rather than lunged into it. But after the way he had talked at the New York Knicks' shootaround earlier in the day about this being a "must-win," Anthony had no choice but to finally bear down -- then deliver.
And what he finally unspooled in the second half and overtime Monday against the shorthanded Orlando Magic was not the sort of night that should leave anyone thinking the Knicks had re-established themselves as a team without holes, or even a team that might make a deep run in the playoffs after all.
But give him -- and the Knicks -- this: It was the sort of night that everyone imagined the Knicks enjoying when they brought Anthony here. Anthony delivered.
Anthony scored from the wing, scored from 3-point land. Scored from inside, scored with Hedo Turkoglu on him, Jason Richardson harassing him, and Dwight Howard sliding over to help out or block his shot. He poured in 39 points, yet the more telling stats about how hard Anthony played -- and how hard-fought this 113-106 Knicks overtime win was -- were the 17 trips Anthony took to the foul line and the 10 rebounds he hauled down.
There was defense he tried to play, and the brief scratching and clawing, down-on-the-floor scrum he got into with Richardson in overtime when they both went down after a loose ball and Anthony just stayed there, pinning a squirming Richardson for a second to prevent him from joining an Orlando fast break that was headed the other way.
Bodies were colliding and hitting the floor pretty regularly by then, and Richardson was so mad when he finally got up a half-beat after Anthony did, he reached out a hand and tripped Anthony -- which drew a foul call from Dick Bavetta that brought several Magic players leaping off the bench, screaming.
"Aw, you know the second guy always gets caught," Anthony laughed later in the Knicks' locker room.
"Melo was out of sight tonight," Knicks point guard Chauncey Billups said. "I've seen him score 40 points, 50 points, all that [for Denver]. But it was the other things he did tonight.
"He was not going to let us lose this game."
It wasn't the sort of game that should stir the idea that Knicks are some juggernaut on par with the Chicago Bulls or Boston Celtics. That will take a few more roster moves and more time. But this was a feel-good win that stopped a six-game Knicks' losing streak, interrupted a 1-9 slide, and actually featured some defense and late-game calm from a Knicks team that hadn't convinced anyone lately -- not even themselves -- that they were capable of any of that. It had been a long time since they'd had a win.
Any kind of win.
"It was just will -- we wanted to win the game; we had to win the game," Anthony said.
The Knicks were asked afterward where had this intensity and defensive commitment been on all those dreary nights when they were losing to inferior teams, such as the Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks. But they didn't exactly want to linger on that, or the fact that the Magic were missing Jameer Nelson and Quentin Richardson and J.J. Redick. The Knicks were more interested in dwelling on how it was also a good sign that they held on to win when Richardson sent the game into overtime with a 3-pointer from 25 feet out with 5.7 seconds left -- and then Anthony missed an acrobatic drive in traffic, and then a putback attempt at the buzzer.
Billups admitted that when Richardson's shot went in over the Knicks' 6-foot-11 Jared Jeffries, "It was frustrating, man." The Knicks have taken that sort of dagger far too often in their schizophrenic month since the trade that brought Billups and Anthony to New York. "I felt like, 'We got the game won,'" Billups admitted. "Then Richardson steps up there and hits an unbelievable shot over our biggest man. But at the same time, we just came back in the huddle [before overtime] and said, 'Five more minutes. Five more minutes.' We fought and fought and fought."
Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni was more emphatic.
"You just draw a line in the sand and you're going to kick somebody's ass tonight, and you got to do it," D'Antoni said.
So he liked Anthony's "must-win" statement?
D'Antoni nodded and said, "I hope he does it more often."
D'Antoni still maintains that the Knicks' problems aren't a matter of the team not wanting to play together or to buy into his system. He admitted he's still struggling to find the right combinations, and the lineup the Knicks can run out is often smaller than teams that have a frontcourt force like Orlando's Howard, but he also stressed: "We're not the only ones. Philadelphia is small. They're still rolling.
"We have to find a way to win. With what we have."
For a night anyway, the Knicks finally did. They sent two or even three players at Howard at times and didn't surrender a field goal to Howard the entire first half. Howard, more than any Magic player, missed Nelson at the point early on. But much like Anthony, he came on late -- finishing with 29 points and 18 rebounds before fouling out on another call in overtime that drove the Magic crazy.
That all of that went right and all of those Magic players were missing and the homestanding Knicks still barely won is a point to harp on another night. The Nets roll into the Garden on Wednesday, and Anthony -- who didn't want to play for New Jersey -- might want to call that a must-win, too.
As much as Anthony delivered Monday night, he's also been around long enough to know seasons or reputations or the bottom lines on trades aren't made on just one game in March, with eight games left in the regular season.
The next "must" is for the Knicks is to find a way to deliver this kind of urgency and intensity night after night after night.