Only injury could stop Melo vs. L.A.

NEW YORK -- Carmelo Anthony took a mid-air hit from Dwight Howard in the middle of the third quarter, and suddenly Willy Loman himself, Mike D'Antoni, looked like the luckiest salesman in the house.

Anthony crash-landed on his left leg, and the alarming thud could be heard in the highest reaches of the Garden. He was down and soon to be out, lost for the final 18-plus minutes with a sprained ankle, giving D'Antoni's Los Angeles Lakers a reason to believe they wouldn't be completely humiliated by the New York Knicks.

Anthony made it to the foul line for his 30th and final point of a night that had the makings of a 50-pointer at his former coach's expense. The Knicks held a 78-61 lead when Anthony hobbled off the same stage that saw Kobe Bryant drop 61 on D'Antoni's defense in 2009, back when the home crowd paid to see Bryant do exactly what he did to its miserable team.

That crowd didn't pay to see Kobe on Thursday night, not with the Knicks entering at 16-5 and not with their own superstar playing like he means business, playing like he's deadly serious about winning his long, lost ring. Anthony was fixing to drop a huge number on D'Antoni, at least until Howard dropped him out of the sky.

"He was exploding," Tyson Chandler said of his teammate. "For sure he would've gotten it to 40, and after that there's no telling. He still had a quarter and a half to go, and he already had 30. I don't think it's a close game if Melo's in the game."

It didn't much matter after a 116-107 Knicks victory that was a blowout the scoreboard couldn't disguise. Anthony was possessed in a first quarter that saw him score 22 points on 8-for-9 shooting from the field, 3-for-3 from long range and from the foul line. The game wasn't 25 percent complete and the fans were chanting "M-V-P" for him. Soon enough, the Lakers were down 26 points in the second.

"He's fun to watch when he's playing like that," Chandler said. "He took them all one-on-five at one point, pulled up for a 3 on the fast break. He's pretty much unstoppable when he's playing that way."

This is why Bryant described Anthony as the toughest cover in the league, tougher than LeBron James and the rest. Bryant called Melo "sensational," and revealed he was moved last year to give the Knicks forward a pep talk, the kind of talk D'Antoni couldn't give him.

Jeremy Lin happened to Anthony last winter, and in the heat of Linsanity, "Everybody said, 'Well, they're better without Carmelo' and all this nonsense," Bryant told reporters. "You guys really put the hammer on him, and as a result, he kind of got a little gun shy and a little self-conscious about things.

"I asked him, 'What's going on? What the hell are you doing?' I said, 'Do what you do best,' and I think the organization put pieces around him that allowed him to do that. Now you guys all celebrate him for what he's always done. God bless you guys."

Bryant got a good laugh from his audience on another not-so-funny night for the Lakers, who applied so little pressure that the Knicks managed to shoot 53 percent from the field, 48 percent from 3-point territory, and to dish out 25 assists while committing only six turnovers. Six.

Yes, D'Antoni left the building the luckiest 4-9 coach in creation. This dreaded homecoming could've been worse for him, much worse.

"I was zoned in; I was locked in," Anthony said. "Tonight was one of those games where I had that feeling.

"I wanted to beat them. I wanted to beat the Lakers, especially protecting our home court. It had nothing to do with Mike."

Only it had everything to do with Mike. Before the game, D'Antoni would shower Anthony with praise, call him "as dangerous as you can get" as a power forward and scorer, and yet the loser in the latest NBA power struggle between coach and star kept taking something back, kept talking up the veteran talent the Knicks added to Melo's side.

Especially the point guards. D'Antoni said the biggest difference in Anthony this year as opposed to last is the presence of Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd, quarterbacks who know how to get their man the ball. D'Antoni seemed to forget he had a point guard last year who became only one of the most recognizable people on the planet.

Of course, the very conductor of Linsanity had no choice but to embrace this article of faith. If he were to credit Melo for Melo's enhanced play, rather than Felton/Kidd, he would also be acknowledging that Woodson inspired his best player to ascend to a level of performance Melo rarely approached under D'Antoni.

So it was better for the visiting coach to try to shine a spotlight on Glen Grunwald's complementary acquisitions, the imports who taught Anthony how to be a winning basketball player. The imports brought in after D'Antoni was long gone.

That self-serving narrative probably helps D'Antoni sleep easier at night, at least when Magic Johnson isn't fast-breaking his way into his dreams. Johnson has picked apart the D'Antoni system as one ill-fitted for his team's aging lead foots, and how many more embarrassing losses will the Lakers have to endure before Kobe takes the ball from Magic and considers making D'Antoni a Paul Westhead to call his own?

D'Antoni was introduced in Madison Square Garden to a healthy round of boos, but the response was nothing compared to the venom showered down on Pat Riley in his own December return in 1995, when the new overlord of the Miami Heat assumed the role of villainous pro wrestler and waved for the crowd to boo him some more.

Truth was, Knicks fans didn't have a heck of a lot invested in D'Antoni, just another high-salaried out-of-towner who quit when the big city got too big. D'Antoni gave up rather than continue searching for the right buttons to push with Melo, and Woodson eagerly stepped into the void.

"He's always been coachable," D'Antoni's successor said of Anthony. "From Day 1 when I stepped in here … even when I was an assistant, I thought he was very coachable."

When Woodson got hold of Anthony and Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire, he said, "Maybe I scared them into playing." Melo has answered his coach's charge, the biggest reason why the Knicks have the best record in the Eastern Conference, and a 20-1 regular-season record at home since Woodson took over in March.

Melo is being Melo, attacking first and worrying about the talking heads and columnists later. "He is in an environment where they celebrate and encourage that," Bryant said of the environment created by Woodson, the coach D'Antoni congratulated with a hearty handshake and a "Good job, Woody" after the final horn.

D'Antoni had warm words for Chandler, Kidd and Felton when it was over, then showed up in his news conference to call Anthony's early outburst "incredible" and to bemoan the fact his Lakers "came out flat again, about the 10th time in a row."

No, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol can't fix all that.

Will Anthony join them on the DL? He said in the locker room he was "real sore right now," and feeling it in his ankle, knee and hip. Melo didn't want to see a replay of his fall; it would hurt too much to watch.

But Anthony still had his 30 points in 23 minutes to comfort him, and a widening body of work to remind D'Antoni that he's always been a coachable star just waiting for the right guy to coach him.