The Knicks are down four with five minutes to play. The ball is in Carmelo Anthony's hands. He's backing down Orlando's Tobias Harris on the wing and in prime position to score. But a funny thing happened on the way to what looked like another clutch-time shot attempt from Anthony ...
That's right, Anthony passed the ball.
It's a play he has been making more frequently this season than at nearly any other time in his career. And it has been a key to the surprisingly strong start for the Knicks.
"He's looking for us every time," Jose Calderon says. "He's willing to pass, he wants us to play as a team -- that's why we've been successful."
Has Melo's game 'evolved?'
Anthony has never been known as a much of a passer. Fair or not, he has carried labels such as "selfish" and "ball stopper" with him throughout his 13 seasons in the NBA. His ordinary passing numbers are one factor that has separated him from players like LeBron James.
But this season, with this Knicks group, Anthony has been willing to give up the ball more often than in season's past.
His assist ratio -- the number of assists a player averages for 100 team possessions -- is a career-high 13.3, per NBA.com. He is averaging 5.3 assists per 100 possessions -- .2 assists off of his career high.
So assists like this one to a cutting Jerian Grant have been more the norm than the exception for Anthony:
"As he's gotten healthier as this season has gone on, I think his complete game has really evolved," coach Derek Fisher says. "I think he's a guy that's capable of almost every night being able to have triple-double-type numbers."
Anthony isn't anywhere near that threshold at this point in the season. He is averaging 21.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. But his passing has been a key factor for the Knicks.
Case in point: His teammates have shot 46.7 percent on passes directly from him --- 3 percent higher than they do on all other play types, according to ESPN Stats & Information's Micah Adams. "Guys are more comfortable," Chris Bosh says. "And that makes him a lot more dangerous."
Last season, Anthony's teammates actually shot 10 percent better on attempts coming directly from his passes than from other situations. The season before that, they shot slightly better (45.9 to 44.6).
To Anthony, this season's difference is a result of being double-teamed more frequently.
"Teams are saying, 'Don't let him beat us and let somebody else beat us,' " Anthony says. "So you got to trust that when you get rid of the ball guys are going to make plays. Now it seems like guys are in the right position to make those plays. They're making shots. Guys are cutting. Guys are spacing out. When they get the ball they're making things happen."
Anthony's referring here to plays such as this one with a cutting Kyle O'Quinn.
Iso Melo no longer?
This isn't to suggest Anthony is turning into Magic Johnson at age 31. His assist ratio of 13.1 mentioned above is a career high but still lags behind ratios produced by James (19.1), Blake Griffin (17.3) and Al Horford (16.3) this season.
Still, to many in the organization, Anthony's passing is an indication of a higher level of trust between him and his teammates.
"That started at the beginning of the season," Anthony says. "I was going to trust them or not, there was no in between with that. I decided to go full throttle with that."
At the risk of sounding cliché, the importance of the message can't be understated. The Knicks hope -- in the best-case scenario -- to surround Anthony and rookie Kristaps Porzingis with enough talent to compete in the Eastern Conference. That's why the trust between Anthony and his teammates is imperative.
"That's always the dilemma for 'star players or franchise players,' " Fisher says. "You know people expect them to move the ball but there definitely has to be trust there. I think our group is earning that collectively from each other."
Anthony's assist numbers have improved this season, but the Knicks are only one-third of the way through an 82-game campaign. So it's too early to make any hard and fast judgments about the team or Anthony at this point. His passing numbers always can revert to previous levels. His teammates might stop hitting shots. He might start shooting the ball more often (he's taking 18 shots per game, nearly two below his career average).
But for now, Anthony seems to have bought into one of the core principles of Phil Jackson's triangle offense -- sharing the ball.
"My mindset will always be help me, help you," he says. "If you're doing your job on the basketball court and you're being productive and you're doing what you have to do then that helps me. When I'm doing what I have to do, I can help you guys as well."