BOSTON -- Carmelo Anthony was flat on his back on a table in the losers' locker room, a white towel wrapped around his waist as two staffers worked the spent muscles in his legs, trying in vain to bring them back to life.
The man had no more left to give. It wasn't so much the 42 points, the 17 rebounds, the six assists and the two blocks against a Boston Celtics team that plays Australian Rules Basketball, turning the sport into the kind of full-contact drill that would have made George Halas and Vince Lombardi wince.
No, the star of the New York Knicks was drained by the burden of isolation. Chauncey Billups couldn't dress for Game 2, and then Amare Stoudemire got a little too excited in warm-ups, touching the top of the backboard glass with his left hand and dunking with his right and ending up with the same sort of back pain that reduced Larry Bird to a shell of his great Celtic self.
Stoudemire couldn't make it through the first half. "Amare's down," Mike D'Antoni told Anthony. "We need you to carry us tonight."
So carry the Knicks Carmelo Anthony did. He carried them the way a rookie point guard named Magic Johnson once carried the Lakers against the Sixers in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals, after an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar forced him to spend some time in the pivot and to take the opening tip.
Magic had 42 points, 15 boards, seven assists, one block -- a line nearly identical to the one Anthony posted Tuesday night, with a notable exception, of course:
Those Lakers won Game 6, and these Knicks lost Game 2.
They lost, 96-93, because Anthony threw a pass to a teammate, Jared Jeffries, whose offensive game reminds of a critique the old Temple coach, John Chaney, made of a wayward-shooting North Carolina player who made a play that denied Temple a bygone bid to the Final Four.
Of King Rice, Chaney would say, "We got beat that day by a guy who couldn't sink a shot if you dropped his ass through the rim with the ball in his hands."
Same goes for Jeffries, and Stoudemire wasn't around to lift him up and place his rump on the rim.
Two nights after he missed the big 3-pointer and just about everything else, Anthony got the ball on the wing in the closing seconds and knew what everyone in the building knew.
Doc Rivers would send over Glen Davis to help the beleaguered Paul Pierce, who was completely overmatched in his one-on-one battle with Anthony. Rivers had been blitzing Davis and leaving a Knick open to force someone other than Anthony to decide the game, and lo and behold, the manos de piedra belonging to Jeffries had actually put the ball in the hole with 19.3 seconds left to give the visitors a one-point lead.
Kevin Garnett made a jump hook in the lane six seconds later, and suddenly D'Antoni had to make a tough call. Expecting the double-team, the Knicks' coach decided to send Jeffries to the basket and hope the forward would be good for 12 points on a night when he'd already shocked the world by scoring 10.
It turned out to be the wrong Plan B, probably a fatal Plan B when the autopsy on this first-round series is done.
"As soon as I got it," Anthony said, "I saw the double-team coming. I made the right play."
The right play to the wrong player. Under the basket, alone for a split second, a confident and reasonably skilled Knick would have made the catch and gone straight up to the basket.
Jeffries? He hesitated, turned right and toward the paint when he should have turned left and toward the glass, and then attempted a slow-developing feed to Bill Walker, who went into that possession 0-for-11 from the floor.
Garnett deflected the pass, fell on it and called timeout with 4.1 seconds to go. Neither D'Antoni nor Anthony would bathe themselves in glory on Boston's inbounds play, when Delonte West was allowed to dribble precious time off the clock in the backcourt before Anthony finally chased and fouled him.
"I couldn't get out there," Anthony maintained. "I don't want to fall flat now."
He was bone tired for a reason. Anthony praised Rivers for "drawing up a hell of a play," and yes, the imagery provided another small piece of evidence that Boston has the decided edge at the position of head coach.
But as much as D'Antoni screwed up Game 1, and later delivered a lot of irrelevant hows and whys, he deserved so much Game 2 credit for inspring Melo and the Mediocrities to play a mile above their heads.
Anthony started the third quarter with Toney Douglas, Shawne Williams, Landry Fields and Ronny Turiaf, and later found himself grouped with Williams, Jeffries, Walker and Roger Mason. In other words, Melo was facing the Boston Celtics with squads that couldn't hold the court in any city park.
"I thought some of the shots he made were just incredible," Garnett said.
Ewing's former teammate, Rivers, was in the Garden for that one. "And what Carmelo did tonight is right there with Patrick," he said in a quiet moment outside his locker room. "In some ways, what Carmelo did was more impressive because he had men down. He had no choice but to score 42 points for his team to have any chance to win."
As it turned out, Anthony fell a basket or two short of giving the Knicks their first playoff victory in 10 years. But he didn't deserve to be ripped over the choice to make that last pass.
It was the selfless play, the right play, the play Magic or Bird would have made in a flash.
Too bad Melo didn't have Worthy or McHale on the other end of it.