NEW YORK -- Carmelo Anthony understood it was going to take a village. At least he said so after his first playoff game this spring, a game against the Celtics he sealed with a surprising pass to Kenyon Martin, a fastball thrown at Matt Harvey speed.
Anthony was heading toward the Madison Square Garden exits that night when he conceded he didn't know whether he would have delivered that assist as a younger Denver Nugget or even as a younger New York Knick. "Now I try to utilize everybody on the team rather than try to do it myself," he told a reporter along for the walk. "I know now in order to win, you can't do it by yourself. And that's something I had to grow with and really figure out."
Did he really grow with it? Did he really figure it out? Those were questions being asked all over the big city as Anthony kept misfiring away against Boston and against Indiana in Game 1, leaving him 35-for-his-past-110 shots entering Game 2 at the Garden.
J.R. Smith couldn't hit the Hudson River if he dropped a ball from the George Washington Bridge, but that's J.R. Smith, sixth man, a conscience-free gunslinger far too erratic to ever be considered a franchise star. Carmelo Anthony is held to a much higher standard, and his paycheck, among other things, explains why.
So Melo knew he had a lot to answer for, including what he called "the alleged Bernard King tweet." Actually, make that tweets. A fellow son of Brooklyn, Anthony always wanted to be another Bernard King, so the missives spit out by the former Knick's Twitter account -- aimed at the heart of Melo's me-first approach -- had to sting a little, even if King's offending associate indeed exists and doesn't belong to the same cyberspace neverland as Manti Teo's old flame.
But more than anything, Anthony had to answer to himself. He forced the trade from Denver because he wanted to be the one to end the championship drought in New York. So here was the question:
Before this second-round series with Indiana got away from him, could he elevate the Knicks around him the way LeBron James had elevated the Heat last year and the way Dirk Nowitzki had elevated the Mavericks the year before that?
For a night, anyway, Anthony answered in the affirmative with a line that almost matched Matt Harvey's at Citi Field. Melo made 50 percent of his field goal attempts, 40 percent of his 3s and 100 percent of his free throws, and finished with 32 points, nine rebounds, three assists, two steals and zero turnovers in a 105-79 rout.
Even his number of shots, 26, felt like a perfect sum. But Anthony's victory Tuesday night was really one of substance over stats, as he sensed an opportunity to seize momentum and save his team after Pacers coach Frank Vogel summoned his mountainous center, Roy Hibbert, to the bench late in the third quarter.
Down two points, the Garden fans starting to sweat it, Anthony made a steal and a driving layup, and then blew by David West for a thunderous two-handed dunk that sent Jeff Pendergraph reeling and turned the place upside down. The fans rewarded Anthony with their "M-V-P" chant, notarizing that single, solitary vote Melo swiped from LeBron James, courtesy of Boston Globe sports writer Gary Washburn, who actually made a reasonable case for his man.
"I don't know why he [caught] so much flak for that," Anthony said. "He has the right to vote for whoever he wants. LeBron won the MVP. Why's everybody so mad that he didn't win it unanimously?"
From behind his news conference microphone, Anthony paused and smiled. "Thank you," he said.
With Game 2 in their hip pocket, the Knicks were in the mood to thank Anthony for igniting a stunning 30-2 run that broke Indiana's spirit on the 18th anniversary of the Reggie Miller miracle that was Game 1, Eastern Conference semis, the scene for 18.7 seconds that no Garden witness will ever forget.
Miller could have yanked off his TNT headset Tuesday, thrown on a jersey and spotted up behind the 3-point line, and it wouldn't have mattered in the least. The Knicks were that overpowering once they got rolling in the third. Mike Woodson said he loved the way the Knicks passed "with a lot more pop" and that the fast pacing felt "like old times again."
He wasn't talking about Red Holzman's Knicks, either.
"Everybody," Woodson said, "sacrificed the ball tonight." Melo included.
"I thought he did an excellent job of swinging the ball," Tyson Chandler said, "getting guys involved. We weren't necessarily knocking down the shots that he was feeding us, but ... eventually it worked down the stretch."
If Anthony is forever ripped for failing to make those around him better, Game 2 presented an interesting counterclaim. Iman Shumpert, who suffered Derrick Rose's injury last season, played his own perfect game and threw down a flying, one-handed slam off an offensive rebound that, Anthony said, "nobody saw coming but him."
Pablo Prigioni, prehistoric point guard, inspired the crowd to chant his name while delivering a beautiful, 21-minute floor game. "Spectacular," Anthony called him.
The one Knick who didn't meet the moment was the ever-struggling Smith, who was 3-for-14 at the time Anthony approached him at the start of a timeout, playfully fist-bumped his chest and gave him a pep talk. You know, the kind of thing a leader is supposed to do.
"He was encouraging me," Smith said. "He kept telling me the shots are going to fall, the shots are going to fall."
They fell for nearly everyone but Smith on a night when it appeared the Knicks were playing for Anthony, not just with him, much the way the Mavericks appeared to be playing for Nowitzki in 2011. Two Knicks who were on that Dallas team, Chandler and Jason Kidd, were asked by ESPNNewYork.com whether they felt inspired to win the ring for Anthony that they'd won for Dirk.
"Hell yeah, hell yeah," Chandler said, "because I know how much it would mean for him, and I know what it does. I know it would just mean the world for Melo. ... It would change his life. When you win a ring, you understand what you play the game for. I know I don't look at the game the same anymore."
Kidd has maintained all season that these Knicks remind him of those Mavs. "And I would love to hopefully do that with Melo," Kidd said of winning a title. "He has some guys here who played with him in Denver, and then we have Tyson and Iman who have played with him, and I played with him on the U.S. team. I think we have a lot of guys around Melo now who are trying to help him become a better player."
Carmelo Anthony was a better player in Game 2, a more efficient player. He spoke of an offense that ran "very fluidly," of an approach that didn't center around me, myself and I.
So Melo didn't beat the Indiana Pacers as much as his team did. Only time will tell whether this is a temporary state of grace or the ironclad plan from here to June.