NEW YORK -- Mike Woodson set the tone early, turning a benign pregame question about Iman Shumpert's role on offense into a chance to remind everyone (Shumpert included) that he couldn't care less about the guard's touches, or lack thereof, not when the New York Knicks are trying to win the NBA title.
You know, that thing they haven't won in 40 years.
"Play defense. Rebound the basketball. Do some dirty work," Woodson barked before his team did enough rebounding but not enough dirty work on a night when Carmelo Anthony's shooting arm flatlined at the worst possible time.
The Toronto Raptors walked into the Garden a dozen games under .500, and walked out with the Knicks' swagger zipped inside their travel bags. Anthony suffered what he called "a deep contusion" on a first-quarter brush with DeMar DeRozan in this ghastly 92-88 loss, so he had his excuse for missing 19 of 24 shots before a crowd that included Patrick Ewing, sitting next to team owner Jim Dolan and undoubtedly recalling that John Starks 2-for-18 shooting performance in a Game 7 neither will forget.
Anthony sounded like an aging Yankees starter when it was over, saying he was firing away with "kind of like a dead arm out there." He announced he'll skip Sunday's All-Star Game in Houston if the injury tells him to, and why not?
Nobody needs to see Anthony jack up jumpers in another All-Star Game, least of all his coach, Woodson, who didn't allow a second consecutive home loss to temper his championship expectations.
"I think we've still got a legitimate shot, absolutely," he said. Woodson was asked why he felt that way after his defense let Toronto journeyman Alan Anderson, a guy who's chased his hoop dreams all over the world, score 26 points in 29 minutes off the pine.
"The fact that we're still at the top of our division and we're still fighting," he said. "We could've lost that a long time ago."
There wasn't much fight in the Knicks on Wednesday night, when they followed the lead of the officiating crew and started their All-Star break early. Anthony did what he could on his drives to the basket, jumping into the Raptors in an attempt to get to the line, but the refs were too busy calling too many technicals to give Melo the superstar's benefit of the doubt.
"It was a frustrating game all the way around," said Anthony, who finished with 12 points and 12 boards.
It was a strange night to be talking about a title for sure, right after a bad loss to a bad team, a loss defined by the Knicks' maddening inability to score from inside three feet. But Woodson wanted it to be that way 50 games in, and he got his wish.
"Oh, without a doubt," Anthony said when asked if his 32-18 team could go all the way. "We've dropped some games we should've won, (but) without a doubt our confidence is not going nowhere."
Of course, it's on Anthony to figure out how to get from A to Z in a conference dominated by LeBron James and friends in Miami, something far easier said than done. LeBron has Dwyane Wade. Kobe Bryant had Shaquille O'Neal. Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen.
Melo? He's got the Dirk Nowitzki blueprint, nothing more or less.
Five weeks ago, Jason Kidd, a member of that Dallas team that won it all in 2011, said these Knicks might be deeper than those Mavs. Nowitzki was the only true in-his-prime star on the 2011 team that beat the Heat. So Dirk is living proof that a high-scoring power forward with modest assist totals (a career average of 2.6 per game) and a relatively modest supporting cast can go through South Beach on the way to a parade.
Like Kidd, Tyson Chandler was along for that ride. So he didn't need any encouraging when told about Woodson's faith in the Knicks' odds.
"I agree with him 100 percent," the center said. "I was just talking to some guys before I walked in [the locker room], and I was telling them, 'Look, you're not going to have too many times in your career when you can say you've got a legitimate shot to go after a championship...This year we've got a shot.
"So when we come back, we've just got to let everybody understand that...you don't want to pass up an opportunity like this in your career, because you always look back and wish you could've done things differently. As athletes, that's the worst thing to ever have is regrets.'"
If the Knicks have had more than their share of regrets over the decades, Wednesday night's front-row fan, Ewing, is their tragic Shakespearean figure, the near-miss franchise player who never had a Pippen on his side.
After the Knicks acquired Melo in 2011, Ewing said, "I had good guys with me, and I'd never take anything away from them. I had John [Starks], Allan [Houston], [Latrell Sprewell], [Charles] Oakley. But none of those guys were of the caliber of Carmelo. I didn't have a Carmelo."
And now Carmelo doesn't have a Carmelo. But he does have a Mavs-like cast good enough to be 4-0 against Miami and San Antonio this year, and deep enough -- when healthy -- to claim the franchise's first playoff series victory since 2000 and to dress up Melo's history of first-round flameouts in Denver, where he didn't have another Melo, either.
During the All-Star break, Anthony said, "We need to just sit there and figure out what we're going to do, what type of team we want to be, what type of identity we want to have coming down the stretch."
The Knicks have temporarily lost their way, but Chandler claimed that championship Mavs team did the same. In 2013, Anthony is scoring better than the 2011 Nowitzki did (28.6 to 23.0), passing a bit better (2.7 to 2.6), and rebounding almost as much (6.5 to 7.0). Melo has racked up a healthy number of hockey assists, and in the final minutes Wednesday night he was willing to drive and dish to an open J.R. Smith, who couldn't knock down the most crucial 3s.
Anthony's trying, he really is. For those who still don't believe the Knicks should've added Timofey Mozgov to the extra-large package shipped to Denver for Melo, check out Mozgov's linescore out in Brooklyn.
As for Anthony's linescore in Manhattan, it was uglier than his contusion. "This one hurt," he said. Melo spoke of putting the first 50 games behind him, of getting some R&R and returning next week "ready to make a push."
Two years ago, Dirk Nowitzki pushed a similar team past LeBron James and Miami. Does Carmelo Anthony have it in him to do the same?