INDIANAPOLIS -- Carmelo Anthony sat shirtless at his locker, all alone with his thoughts, an ice bag strapped to his bum left shoulder and a pair of ice compression wraps working his barking knees. He wore blue and orange team slippers, with a white towel stretched out beneath his feet, as he gently rocked his legs and lost himself in a vacant stare.
Teammates were quietly dressing around him, some whispering answers to news media questions they didn't want to field, and Anthony just wouldn't get out of that chair to take the last shower of the season. He creaked and grunted when he finally and slowly lifted himself to his feet, and then he unwrapped the shoulder mummy-style, letting that ice bag fall harmlessly to the floor.
The New York Knicks were participating in their last rites of spring, and their franchise player wanted to take this game into overtime. He stopped for a word with Amar'e Stoudemire, the complementary star who wasn't, and tapped Stoudemire on the side. Anthony fiddled with a cellphone he was charging near his stall, and then he staggered off with the limp of a 40-year-old quarterback who had taken one too many hits from the blind side.
Across from Melo, on a wall near the losers' exit, the same grease board that delivered a post-Game 4 message imploring the Knicks to "stay the course" and "win one, change everything" carried no words of post-Game 6 inspiration.
"1st bus 11: 35. 2nd 12:00." That was it. A season that was supposed to be about winning it all, or at least coming damn close, had just been thrown under the bus.
A season that has to be considered a failure, whether Anthony wanted to admit it or not.
"My career is far from over," Anthony would say after the Indiana Pacers eliminated the Knicks on Saturday night, "so I'm not really concerned about that. I still got a lot more time in this league."
As he closes in on his 29th birthday, Anthony is right about that. He's in his prime, at the top of his game and a safe bet to lead his hometown team into the playoffs on a regular basis. Melo had 39 points and shot better than 50 percent from the field in this 106-99 loss, and not even his crucial three turnovers in the fourth quarter and failed dunk attempt -- courtesy of a remarkable, game-altering block by Roy Hibbert -- could delete the fact that the Knicks' star had enhanced his unfortunate postseason résumé.
But Anthony and his team are stuck in no man's land now. Derrick Rose, Danny Granger and Rajon Rondo are returning to the Eastern Conference next season, and so are the Miami Heat, likely as two-time champs.
The Knicks? Their roster, the league's oldest, collapsed around Anthony, stranded him against an Indiana team that placed all five starters in double figures Saturday night, including Brooklyn's Lance Stephenson of Lincoln High, who treated the Knicks as if they were some overmatched opponent at the bottom of the Public Schools Athletic League.
Glen Grunwald, GM, and Mike Woodson, coach, gambled and lost, simple as that. They're locked in to Marcus Camby, Jason Kidd and Stoudemire for another two years, and Steve Novak for another three. Tyson Chandler's value plummeted as he vanished in this series, and Raymond Felton delivered an 0-for-7 no-show at the worst possible time.
J.R. Smith is a free agent, and he said he wants to retire a Knick, but investing big money in him is investing in a lost cause. Smith proved again in Game 6 that he's a fourth option on a true championship contender, nothing more.
"I wasn't there for my teammates," Smith said. "You have the quote-unquote season that I had, your teammates are supposed to rely on you. They tried to rely on me, and I didn't step up."
Smith earned yet another foolish technical and didn't even bother to hustle, an unforgivable Game 6 sin and a good enough reason to let him go clubbing with Rihanna on someone else's dime. Anthony needs some real help here, not the artificial kind.
"Overall, we had a hell of a season, hell of a year," Anthony maintained. "I think we took some steps forward as a team, as an organization. To win the games that we won, the 50-plus games, won our division. To get to this point right now where we had a chance to get to the conference finals, we'll take that.
"It's a learning curve for us, and we'll be back better and stronger next year for sure."
Deep down, Anthony must know that's a reach. He knows the Knicks went all-in for 2012-13, building a team in the image of the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks, who beat the Heat in six games to win Dirk Nowitzki his long lost ring.
Melo was supposed to be the Knicks' Nowitzki, a superstar power forward who wouldn't need a Scottie Pippen or a Dwyane Wade to win a title if he had enough of the right pieces around him. But outside of Iman Shumpert, whose 3-point explosion in the third nearly stole Game 6 and whose youth, athleticism and nerve (he returned in January from the same knee injury Derrick Rose suffered on the same day) are desperately needed assets, the Knicks didn't surround Anthony with the right pieces.
"We failed," Shumpert said. "We wanted to put ourselves in the finals and then roll the dice, and we didn't do that."
Yes, the Knicks absolutely failed. They were too satisfied with their opening-round conquest of the washed-up Celtics, too eager to embrace the franchise's first playoff series victory in 13 years as a mission accomplished.
So they handed away Game 1 at home to the Pacers as if it were a free T-shirt for the Garden fans, and never recovered. The Knicks turned Hibbert and Paul George into national stars, and convinced some observers they wouldn't have even survived Game 5 had George Hill never been concussed in Game 4.
"It's tough to go out this way," Woodson said. He got that right, anyway.
"This is the first time this team has ever been assembled," the coach would add. "We did a lot of special things this season. To walk away from tonight and say this was a disaster, absolutely not."
A disaster? Maybe that's a bit strong. But a major disappointment? No question.
The Knicks were the 2-seed, with home-court advantage. They had the best player on the floor, and they had won five more regular-season games than Indiana for a reason. The Pacers aren't the Heat. The Pacers didn't have Granger all series, basically all season, and Granger is arguably their best player, with George right on his heels.
So this was a winnable series for the Knicks, a winnable series they didn't win. Anthony did what he could in the end. He had 35 points in the first three quarters and was too spent in the fourth to carry his team anymore.
"It's tough," he said. "We all know what was the goal that we had set. Everybody wants to go to the championship, win the championship, that's the ultimate goal. Unfortunately our run had to stop here."
Anthony spoke hopefully of better things to come. But as he walked out of the Pacers' building late Saturday night, walking with his high-powered agent, Leon Rose, he had to know he's right back to where he was in Denver or where he was upon arrival in New York.
Carmelo Anthony doesn't have enough talent around him to win a ring, and it doesn't look like that's going to change any time soon.