NEW YORK -- Donnie Walsh was wearing a red tie and dark pinstriped suit and sitting in a front-row seat at the Garden, holding a cane as he held court on the subject of Carmelo Anthony, the franchise player he brought to New York.
You might remember that Walsh was the Knicks executive who didn't want to send Timofey Mozgov to Denver in a package he already thought was too big for Anthony. You might also remember that Walsh publicly kicked himself for acquiring Melo before realizing Deron Williams, a better fit for Amar'e Stoudemire, might be available in Utah.
It doesn't much matter in this business. Walsh closed the deal on Melo, so he deserves the credit for Melo. And as the man who now runs the Indiana Pacers, Walsh, a native New Yorker, knows fellow New Yorkers really don't care whether Anthony wins the scoring title or gets named league MVP, no matter how often they chant in vain for him when he's at the foul line.
Walsh knows New Yorkers only want to know if Anthony can win them a championship, something the Indiana executive said he thinks can happen this June, Miami Heat or no Miami Heat, LeBron or no LeBron.
"A hell of a series," Walsh called that potential Knicks-Heat meeting in the Eastern Conference finals. "I couldn't pick it."
And on the day the Knicks clinched the No. 2 seed in the East, beating their possible second-round opponent, Indiana, and landing in a first-round faceoff with the Boston Celtics, Anthony understood he wasn't hired by Walsh to finish second in anything. The Knicks didn't stuff half their future inside a box and ship it to Denver for any reason other than the fact they thought Anthony would end the championship drought Patrick Ewing couldn't, and sooner rather than later.
"Oh everybody, the blogs and all, were ripping it apart because we gave up a lot of players," Walsh said of the Anthony trade. "I don't remember what I said then, but I know what I said to (reporters): 'I just think this guy is so good, you're never going to get a chance to get a guy like this.' As much as I didn't want to give up the players I did, I thought we should do it."
The Knicks did it in February 2011, and here they are in April 2013, a real (or imagined) contender with 15 victories in their last 16 games and with a superstar, Anthony, who turns 29 next month. In other words, a superstar in the heart of his prime.
On Sunday, Anthony relinquished his streak of seven consecutive games of 30 or more points. He was only needed to score 25 in 30 minutes of this 90-80 victory over the Pacers, whose tough guys roughed up Anthony enough to leave him with a sore left shoulder, and one a trainer was seen spraying at the start of the fourth quarter while Melo winced.
He said his shoulder was bruised up a bit, but that he was good to go. Melo's been around long enough to know you don't start crying about a bum shoulder before you play a best-of-seven with the Celtics, the team that knocked him out two years back.
"That's in the back of our minds," Anthony said of the 2011 defeat. "We want to beat Boston. I mean, let's be quite frank ... This playoff series for myself, it's very important for us as a team, as a city, as an organization. We're looking forward to this season."
This season is on both of Anthony's shoulders now, the real season starting this weekend against Boston. He hasn't been much of a winner this time of year. In fact, he's been a first-round loser eight times in nine postseason trips with the Nuggets and Knicks, a cruel stat that doesn't care if Melo was often saddled with the weaker side.
He has no excuses this time around because the Knicks should beat the Celtics in five or six. The Knicks are better than the Celtics, and Anthony is certainly better than the proud but diminished Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
"His body is in super shape," Walsh said, "and that's the only thing I thought he had to improve. He can do everything else ... You could see him on TV, but when you see him in person, he's slim, and I haven't seen him like that before.
"The thing I always knew he could do is defend and rebound and pass, and he's been doing those things ... But you've got to look at it from a unique point of view. If you can score the way he does and you don't have guys on the team that you're sure can make the shot, then you're probably going to shoot it.
"He's got better players around him now."
Anthony made them better, too, by embracing a more team-centric approach. "His overall game," Mike Woodson said, "is so much better than it was a year ago in terms of playing both ends and rebounding and giving up the ball when he's double-teamed, and still scoring."
Woodson said Anthony would guard the opponents' best player in each playoff round, forcing him to be accountable on both sides of the ball. Melo swore he didn't feel any pressure. "None," he said.
And that's a good thing, too, because this city can feel like a cold and unforgiving place for a franchise player who is failing to carry the franchise in the playoffs. Melo can ask Alex Rodriguez, the pre-2009 A-Rod, a thing or three about that.
Anthony said he expects a physical series with Doc Rivers' Celtics, who won't go down without a fight. But make no mistake: They should go down. The 53-win Knicks are a dozen games better than the Celtics for a reason.
This isn't 2011, when Stoudemire injured himself in the Boston series attempting some silly pregame dunk. The 2013 Knicks don't even need Stoudemire to prevail in this series.
"The mindset is a lot different," Anthony explained. "My mindset now is a lot different ... Different personnel. Different team. Different style of play, and just the focus that we have right now and knowing what's at stake. We have a chance to do something with this team."
They have a chance to win two rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs before trying (and probably failing) to beat LeBron James's Heat the way Ewing's Knicks tried (and definitely failed) to beat Michael Jordan's Bulls.
But one neutral observer sees the conference final-to-be as an even-steven proposition. The executive who acquired Anthony for the Knicks, Walsh, returned to the Garden on Sunday to say this of Knicks-Heat, if we ever get to Knicks-Heat: "When they play I think either one of them could win, and I think (the Knicks) will think that way."
They'll only think that way because they have Carmelo Anthony on their side. The real season is on his shoulders, meaning there's no time for either one of them to be sore.