Playing through pain is Melo's gain

Nothing advances the cause of winning New York's affection -- or winning back New York's affection -- quite like playing hurt. Carmelo Anthony did not need to review the grainy images of Willis Reed hobbling out of a Garden tunnel that no longer exists to understand that.

If the sacred tunnel was sacrificed at the altar of change, removed in favor of high-priced seats that are part of a higher-priced renovation, the city's no-pain, no-gain ethos remains intact. Anthony knew his team and fan base needed him Wednesday night, whether his injured groin wanted to cooperate or not.

Amare Stoudemire was out, and so was Jeremy Lin. Tyson Chandler would have to wrestle Dwight Howard with a bum wrist, and Baron Davis would have to run the point with a sore hamstring and other achy, breaky parts.

Anthony couldn't possibly sit this one out. If this were a January game with the Orlando Magic, he likely would've let the undermanned Knicks give it the old college try.

But it wasn't January. It's almost April, and Anthony knows he'll go down as the face of an unmitigated disaster if he doesn't at least carry this team to May.

"I'll give them what I have," Melo promised in the morning, and nobody knew what, exactly, that would be. He was in the trainer's room early, and he said he'd treat the injury all day long.

"I just want to step up," Anthony said. "That's it. I've got to take on that responsibility to try and win these basketball games."

So Anthony won a big game in what has been his worst season. He was shooting only .399 from the floor, scoring only 20.2 points a pop. And, oh yeah, he forced Mike D'Antoni to cry uncle in seven seconds or less.

In other words, Melo needed a night like this. Really needed it. The Knicks entered the Garden with a two-game lead on Milwaukee for the final playoff spot in the East, and with a strong suspicion that Stoudemire might be no more useful on return -- if he returns -- than he was in Boston's first-round sweep last season.

Anthony had to be the star the Knicks traded for, or thought they traded for, and in this 108-86 wipeout he was every ounce of that. Melo rang up 25 points in 26 minutes before Mike Woodson sat him for good late in the third quarter, after the home team hit the Magic with a devastating 21-0 run.

"We were awful," Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said after watching his team go down by 39 points.

Anthony was the polar opposite of awful. When he wasn't nailing 3-pointers and powering his way to the rim, he was riding an exercise bike behind the Eighth Avenue basket, pumping his legs at Tour de France speed.

"My teammates need me out there," Anthony said after finishing with six assists and five rebounds. "They see me in the trainer's room early, being in the gym early, maybe they do feed off that."

Yes, they fed off it. Iman Shumpert matched Melo's 25 points and played suffocating defense, but there was no doubting the Knicks' main source of inspiration.

"This morning and yesterday in the trainer's room," Steve Novak said of Anthony, "I went home and told my wife, 'He's going to play.' He said to the trainers, 'Look, as long as I've got to be in here I'm playing.'

"I feel like that's what we need right now. You see it in him. He wants to be out there, he's fighting through it, and he knows it's an important time of year. And if he's willing to fight through injuries and play and be banged up, everyone has to fall in line."

The Knicks reduced Howard to the size of a referee's whistle, outrebounding Orlando by a 49-34 count. They delivered 24 assists to Orlando's 14 and committed only 11 turnovers.

"It definitely fires everybody up to see your star player out there sacrificing his body and playing defense and doing all the little things," Davis said, "the intangible things, rebounding and blocking shots. It's definitely an inspiration to the guys who have the energy and the spunk to do it."

Funny how things work out. Anthony was the sour-pussed slacker who brought down D'Antoni, the main drain on a low-energy team. Now he's the guy fighting through injuries and making Woodson look like the most convincing motivator in the league.

Anthony was grimacing early, suggesting it could be a long night. "I think I was more just trying to anticipate the pain," he said. "I felt it at times out there on the court. It's just one of those things that hopefully goes away soon."

Melo established position closer to the basket against Orlando, found his rhythm, then moved his game out to the perimeter. With the Knicks holding a 16-point halftime lead, Anthony opened the third with two quick 3s and a 17-foot jumper, and soon enough the Magic quit on their man Stan.

"Times like this is always fun times," Anthony said, "right before the playoffs, guys having to step up their games. … I'm just playing my part, just playing my position, and trying to be one of the leaders of the team."

Anthony hasn't always been the most reliable leader. His teams have reached the playoffs in each of his eight seasons, but seven of them have lost in the first round.

Now he's responsible for a 26-25 team most likely headed for a long-shot opening series with the Chicago Bulls or Miami Heat. On Wednesday night, Anthony was on the way to his first 30-point performance in 27 games, and the end of a drought the Elias Sports Bureau says is the longest of his career.

But the Knicks didn't need 30 from Melo. They needed him to show up, hobbled or not, and to play a brand of ball as tough as the marketplace.

So maybe Anthony has figured out how to crack the code. If he wants to win back New York's complete trust, a little pain will equal a lot of gain.