INDIANAPOLIS -- The New York Knicks want the ball, but they are not worthy of receiving it. They do not belong on the same postseason stage with their star, Carmelo Anthony, who deserves better than he's gotten from a supporting cast that's too busy crumbling around him.
Down 3-1 after Tuesday night's 93-82 defeat, the Knicks are almost certain to lose their second-round series to an Indiana Pacers team thriving without its best player, Danny Granger, a development that would normally reduce Anthony to the easiest of news media and message board targets, a piñata in a headband.
But this will be a whole new blame game if the Knicks fail to make good on their puncher's chance, fail to take three consecutive sudden-death games from a bigger, stronger and more aggressive opponent. The standard default position -- It's all Melo's doing -- isn't going to cut it this time. Not with Anthony's teammates looking about as comfortable in this series as Sergio Garcia looked on Sunday on the 17th tee.
"I don't want it to be where we always have to depend on Melo all the time to bail us out," Knicks coach Mike Woodson said.
Only that's exactly what the Knicks are right now -- a team desperate to be saved from itself. Tyson Chandler called for more ball movement after Melo took a grand total of 16 shots in Game 3, called for it after Roy Hibbert made Chandler look Nate Robinson small, and the few extra passes didn't matter in the least in Game 4.
Kenyon Martin went 0-for-3 in 29 minutes. Iman Shumpert, going on a bum knee, went 0-for-6 in a lousy 16 minutes. Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni went a combined 0-for-2 in 19 minutes, 16 of them played by the 40-year-old Hall of Famer-to-be who missed a layup and could really use a couple of weeks in the tub.
"We've got to understand we've got nothing to lose at this point," Kidd said.
Nothing but the 2012-13 season, one that will go down as a major disappointment if the Knicks fall to Indiana, and one that J.R. Smith will take to his grave.
"I take the blame for this whole series," said Smith, who shot 7-for-22 Tuesday night, and who has missed 91 of his 137 shots in this postseason.
"I've been letting my teammates down. I've been letting my coaches down."
Just about every Knick could say the same. Woodson made a significant move before Game 4, starting Martin in Prigioni's place and sending a message to Indiana that the Knicks were ready to play with the big boys underneath. If it wasn't exactly Joe Torre benching Tino Martinez, Paul O'Neill, and Wade Boggs for Game 3 of the '96 World Series, it was a nervy call by Woodson all the same.
And he didn't have Torre's touch with it. Not even close. Still slowed by the same bug that got to Smith first, Martin didn't score a point and contributed five rebounds to a Knicks team that grabbed 36, or 18 fewer than the Pacers grabbed.
"We got hammered on the boards again," Woodson said.
They got hammered in every way an alleged contender can be hammered, coach included. Only 29 seconds after Chris Copeland sank a three early in the fourth quarter, cutting the Indiana lead to 10, Woodson inexplicably summoned him to the bench in favor of the returning Anthony, leaving the rusty and ineffective Amar'e Stoudemire (four fouls, four points in 11 minutes) on the floor. Woodson needed offense there, needed to go small with Melo and Copeland, and by the time Stoudemire was subbed out the Knicks were down 16.
Stoudemire and Chandler picked up early, silly technicals, and the Knicks spent too much time and energy complaining about the officials' calls, a losing proposition every time. No longer interested in taking a wide-open shot, Kidd over-passed his way into a 24-second violation at the end of the second quarter. In the third, Indiana's lumbering Ian Mahinmi beat Smith to a loose ball on the baseline he won on pure desire, nothing more.
"I have to play more efficient," Smith said at his locker, disarming the encroaching media mob by ripping himself to shreds. "I have to rebound the ball. One rebound, two rebounds is not enough. Paul George is out there getting 13, 14 rebounds. As a wing player like myself, it's pretty much unacceptable."
Losing this series would be pretty much unacceptable, too. The Knicks are the No. 2 seed, the team with home-court advantage, the team expected to face Miami in the conference final, the team with the healthy star in Anthony to operate in ways Indiana only wished the down-and-out Granger could.
But the Pacers are the ones attacking the basket with a purpose; they shot 30 free throws to the Knicks' 14. "They're just pinning their ears back," Chandler said. "It's not just one or two guys; it's five guys crashing the boards, and we have to make them pay for it."
This time around, Chandler was calling for more points on the fast break and for more shooters to knock down open looks. He said that the ball moved better in Game 4, and that he never meant to incriminate Anthony after Game 3 when he campaigned for a more team-centric approach from offenders he didn't identify.
"I wasn't directing my comments at Carmelo Anthony," Chandler said. "I was directing my comments at the New York Knicks."
It was hardly a convincing claim, and chances are Melo didn't totally buy it, either. But the two said they talked and straightened it out, no blood, no foul.
"I didn't take it like he was throwing a jab at me," Anthony said. "Our offense has been s---. He has a right to say that."
Whatever. But after scoring 24 points on 23 shots, some of which he was all but forced to take, Anthony also has the right to ask for a little help here, help he's not likely to get. The team's fundamental (and fatal) flaw is its casting of Smith in the role of best supporting actor, the pseudo-Pippen to Melo's pseudo-Jordan. J.R. just isn't good enough, or consistent enough, to handle the responsibility.
"I want J.R. to shoot," said Anthony, who fouled out with two minutes left. "He can't take his shots with him. I need J.R. to shoot."
He needs J.R. to make them.
"I really believe that we can do something special here," Melo maintained.
"I still do believe that we are the better team."
Written on the grease board in the losers' locker room was this message: "Stay the course. Win one, change everything."
Maybe the Knicks can get this series back to a Game 6, maybe not. But if they lose to Indiana in the end, Carmelo Anthony won't be their fall guy. People will understand that even LeBron James, even Jordan, couldn't have carried this sorry supporting cast.