NEW YORK -- The Carmelo Anthony conversation forever focuses on the lesser lights around him and, for the most part, rightfully so. Anthony needs a credible second star to win a title, and, to date, the New York Knicks have failed to supply him with one.
But Wednesday night in the Garden, with the 9-1 Indiana Pacers in the house -- the same Indiana Pacers who knocked him out in six games last spring -- Anthony got 19 unexpected points from a backup playmaker named Beno Udrih and 21 off the bench from the suddenly revived J.R. Smith.
It wasn't enough. And the reason it wasn't should alarm Knicks fans as much as this upcoming four-game road trip that could leave last season's 54-win second seed at 4-11, or even 3-12.
Paul George, age 23, has become a better player than Anthony, age 29, and that's a problem. A big problem. It's one thing for LeBron James to be the superior Eastern Conference talent, quite another for George to have hurdled Melo in the power rankings, too.
"He's got a lot better, especially offensively," Anthony said after George finished with 35 points and outscored the Knicks in overtime 9-7 in the Pacers' 103-96 victory.
"All it takes is confidence in this league. I think with George, that's what he has right now, and it's growing day by day, game by game, and you can see that when he's out on the court."
You could see that at the end of regulation Wednesday night, when George was fouled by Iman Shumpert on a 3-point attempt with 5.2 seconds left, Knicks up three. Joey Crawford, veteran ref, called it a foul, anyway, and the replays suggested it was much less of a foul than the one that wasn't called Monday night in the Carolina Panthers' end zone.
George calmly made the first two free throws before Mike Woodson called timeout, his attempt to ice the kicker. George still sent it straight through the uprights.
"That guy's got big guts," Indiana coach Frank Vogel said of his man.
Anthony took a spinning shot in the lane at the end of regulation -- the shot he's paid handsomely to make -- and it bounded hard off the rim. He made conspicuous contact with George before releasing the ball and, as usual, didn't earn the officials' benefit of the doubt. Maybe the refs will give him that after he finally wins a ring.
Melo looked a million miles removed from that ring when this game was over, when George was done dominating in overtime and reducing Anthony's 30 points (on 10-for-28 shooting) and 18 boards to a wasted effort. The Knicks scored the first 13 points of the night and still ended up in a discouraging heap.
"It feels like we're just stuck in mud right now," Anthony said, "but we'll get out of it."
They'd better get out of it much sooner rather than later. The Knicks have taken fewer free throws than each of their past 10 opponents, they're not getting nearly enough scoring from their starting guards and Anthony is shooting the lowest field goal percentage of his career (.416).
"I'm trying to find an identity right now," Woodson said before the Indiana loss. "That's been the frustrating part about all of this."
Woodson would later speak of how proud he was of his team's effort -- "That is something that I haven't seen a lot of this early season," he said -- forgetting that, in the big leagues, as one local coach once said, there are no medals for trying.
Unlike the Knicks, the Pacers don't revolve around the whims of a megastar. Though George did emerge as a force in the second-round elimination of Melo, the Pacers beat the Knicks back then as a team, a real team, and Vogel wants to embrace that approach this time around, too.
But he understands that it's almost impossible to win a championship without a closer who commands the endgame respect of the refs. Crawford's call on Shumpert reminded of the Jess Kersey call on Antonio Davis here in 1999 to start Larry Johnson's famous four-point play that ultimately led to the Pacers' elimination. Kersey would later call it the worst whistle of his distinguished career; Crawford isn't likely to ever make a similar claim.
Shumpert was the fall guy on this night, but George still had to have the nerve and conviction to sink all three shots. "Paul George obviously was sensational," Vogel said, "not just carrying the offensive load. To carry the offensive load the way he did and have to guard Carmelo Anthony for basically 48 minutes, I don't know where he finds the energy, but it's special.
"Even as he has become our go-to guy, he's still very new at crunch-time moments for us, and he showed another step."
A step that has made the absence of Danny Granger a footnote, nothing more.
"I thought we had the game won," Anthony said Wednesday night, "and in overtime, they just walked away with it."
George walked away with a 10-1 record and a firm place among the game's best players. His growth is yet another reason to believe that the Knicks won't get past Indiana -- never mind Miami -- with or without Tyson Chandler. The Pacers had the better team last season, and now they have the better player, too, and one six years younger.
Anthony will still deserve his $129 million full scholarship in July, assuming he stays in New York. But money won't buy him peace of mind in the Eastern Conference, in which his own stock is falling like his team's.