NEW YORK -- Donnie Walsh said he always knew Carmelo Anthony could be this kind of ballplayer, and yet on his return to home bittersweet home Sunday, there was ample evidence to suggest the overlord of the Indiana Pacers was telling a little white lie.
For one, Walsh didn't want to do the deal with Denver, not the deal the New York Knicks ended up making. For two, Walsh publicly kicked himself after the Melo trade for not calling Utah about Deron Williams, pilfered in the night by the Brooklyn-bound Nets.
Deep down, Walsh had to know Anthony was a poor fit for Mike D'Antoni's system and for Amar'e Stoudemire's game. The executive had been around the league forever, and had sharpened his street smarts as a young prospect out of Riverdale on the Rucker Park court. Walsh didn't want to give up the kitchen sink to Denver if it would leave his own house in disarray.
As it turned out, the Knicks would've been positively mad to leave the Nuggets hanging at the negotiating table. Denver wanted Timofey Mozgov added to an ever-widening package of talent, and Walsh and D'Antoni didn't want to do it. They wanted to wait out the Nuggets at the very least, push them closer to the trade deadline, before Jim Dolan, God bless him, actually made the smart call and put the 7-foot-1 Mozgov in the deal after meeting with Anthony at the All-Star Game in Los Angeles.
The same Mozgov now averaging 2.7 points and 2.7 rebounds in 11.7 minutes for the 4-6 Nuggets.
So outside his Madison Square Garden locker room following an early and ugly 88-76 victory over Walsh's Pacers, Anthony was asked if he believed Walsh was in full support of Dolan's desire to bring him to New York.
"I never even knew who was behind it or anything like that," Anthony told ESPNNewYork.com. "It was just a matter of getting here and making it work. I don't think I really had to sell it to [Dolan]. ... In the end, Donnie was the guy who said it was worth it because he's the guy who pulled the trigger on it."
Yes, Walsh did officially close the deal, one he can call his own if these 7-1 Knicks go ahead and win their first NBA title in 40 years. Outside his locker room, after he was done scoring 26 points and grabbing nine rebounds against the Pacers, Anthony said he was trying not to think about that potential parade, trying not to get ahead of himself before the season even hit Thanksgiving.
"But if that day would ever happen," he said, "it would mean so much to me."
The subject of defense came up, because it always comes up with Knicks teams that have a shot at ending what's become a biblical championship drought.
"There's extra motivation now," Anthony said in the hallway. "I know I can do it. I know I can play it. To always hear that you don't play defense, or that your team doesn't play defense, that will get to anybody."
It got to Anthony. After building his reputation as a prolific scorer, he was suddenly struck by an epiphany on the other side of the floor.
Melo watched LeBron James win the ring he so desperately needed for his own standing in the sport. He helped LeBron and Coach K win another Olympic gold medal by embracing all of their team-centric goals, and then spent some extra time around Tyson Chandler and Jason Kidd, selfless teammates who put Dirk Nowitzki on a float in Dallas.
Anthony showed up for training camp lighter and more determined, a new man singing a new song. He opened the season by jacking up 28 shots against the Miami Heat, missing 18 of them, but he did rebound and defend, and his devotion to the blood-and-guts necessities of championship-level ball has gone unchallenged ever since.
"I always thought Melo was a guy who could do everything," Walsh maintained in the Garden on Sunday, "and I think ... he saw they could have a really good team and that he could do everything, and he's done it.
"He can defend, he can rebound, he can pass. There's nothing I can think of in basketball Carmelo can't do."
Asked why it took Anthony 10 years to figure out he needed to commit himself on the defensive end, Walsh said, "You'll have to ask him that."
So Melo was asked during his standard postgame briefing at his locker why it appears he's been watching tape of the '85 Bears.
"Just my focus now with the team I have," he said. "Everybody knows I can score the basketball, that's a no-brainer. But for me it was being able to go out there and say, 'Today I'm going to lead my team. I'm going to defend. I'm going to help out. I'm going to do what I've got to do. I'm going to sacrifice something out there on the basketball court.' That was my motivation ... to approach this season as a new beginning for me. My focus is extremely high right now."
Melo's focus was required for this sleepy noontime start, as the Knicks didn't return from their Memphis loss until just before dawn Saturday. Last season, Chandler would say, "We let this game slip away." This isn't last season, and these aren't Mike D'Antoni's Knicks.
These are very much Mike Woodson's Knicks, a team as tough as its schedule. The Knicks are back out for three road games this week, including Friday's reunion in Houston with their not-so-dearly-departed friend, Jeremy Lin.
Walsh said his successor, Glen Grunwald, did the right thing in letting go of Lin and his future $15 million wage and in bringing back Raymond Felton, whom Walsh called "the one guy I didn't really want to give up in that trade."
The Melo trade. Walsh eventually signed off on it, and Grunwald later added enough winning veteran parts to replace the players shipped to Denver, and then some. Walsh called the Knicks' wide range of talent "as good as anybody's."
Above all, Anthony's presence made that statement possible. Melo said he is "absolutely, by far" a better player than the one his former boss traded for two seasons ago, and with every passing possession, it's getting harder to dispute the point.
Donnie Walsh said he knew Anthony had it in him all along, and Knicks fans don't really care if that's the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. They do care that the Denver deal is one that ultimately left them with a fully engaged superstar, the kind of thing you need to win it all.