Just a few hours before the Knicks tipped off on national television against the Eastern Conference–leading Chicago Bulls yesterday, the team announced that it had hired Larry Johnson as a "business and basketball operations representative." That's a pretty meaningless title — what job does a "representative" do, exactly? — and the job surely, at least for a while, will mostly consist of appearing at various team community functions to remind everyone that the Knicks used to win playoff games. But L.J.'s continued fame in this city — the rest of the sports universe, after all, still knows him as the UNLV superstar and, of course, Grandmama — is a vivid reminder that in New York, one shot, one play, one transcendent moment, can make you a legend here forever. In the game a few hours later, Carmelo Anthony may have given us two of them.
Okay, let's not get carried away: Carmelo's two holy-bejeezus three-pointers at the end of regulation and at the end of overtime to give the Knicks a stunning, euphoric 100-99 win over the Bulls yesterday afternoon won't be remembered the way L.J.'s four-pointer was. This was a regular season game, first off; that was Game 3 of the conference finals. But this is what everyone's been waiting for from Carmelo since the Knicks traded for him: A massively important game on the grandest stage (yesterday was one of those games where you can tell Carmelo was constantly aware he was on national television) that Carmelo took over and won the way Carmelo Anthony always imagines himself winning games: By creating his own hero moment, off the dribble, at the moment of the most intense, insane pressure. Hero Ball is on the wane in the NBA, but yesterday, Carmelo, the living adversarial embodiment of the anti-Hero Ball movement, won a game for the Knicks when no one else would have.
It was without question his greatest game as a Knick. (We'd put second place, by the way, as that Game 2 loss to the Celtics in last year's playoffs, the Jared Jeffries game.) His stats were outstanding — 43 points, seven rebounds, four of five from three-point range — but all that anyone will remember are those shots. Man, those shots. Here's both of them, if you haven't watched them enough already, via Posting and Toasting.
First, the end of regulation shot, which was our favorite (and he might have even been fouled):
And then, overtime:
Those two plays are what Carmelo Anthony imagines every game ending with. They are the reason he is in the NBA, the reason he is on this Earth, the driving force behind every grueling training session, every decision, from coming to New York to running out Mike D'Antoni: Carmelo Anthony wants to take the huge shot. We put up with so much — one could definitely argue too much — for those moments. It can be so exhausting and infuriating waiting for them. But when they come? There isn't much better.
Carmelo's obviously the story today — along with Derrick Rose missing two free throws in his first game in about a month that allowed Carmelo the chance to make that first three-pointer — but it warrants mentioning that Iman Shumpert is slowly turning into the Knicks' second-best player. He was terrific yesterday, scoring fifteen points, grabbing nine rebounds, and dishing out six assists (to go with only one turnover), but Shumpert's real brilliance comes on defense, where he is turning into an elite player. He was a constant headache for Rose all game, culminating in a ferocious denial of the inbounds pass on the Bulls' last possession; Rose ended up with the ball, but with Shumpert still all over him, and he missed the final shot. It was Shumpert's best performance as a Knick, and with he and Tyson Chandler on the court, it is possible the Knicks have two of the best defenders in the NBA, more than making up for Anthony's and Amar'e Stoudemire's (when he returns) deficiencies. (And even Anthony is playing solid defense now that, you know, he's trying to.)
It was a breathtaking game; we staggered out of the Garden yesterday stunned and hoarse and giddy in a way we hadn't been since Linsanity's heyday. (And before that ... uh ... maybe after the Ice Capades?) Now that Carmelo has done this, everyone's going to expect him to do it all the time. Considering how good this Bulls team is, and they might still be the Bulls' first-round opponent, he may have to. (And you get a sense that the Bulls might destroy the Knicks in their rematch on Tuesday.) That comes with the territory for Carmelo; this is after all what he wanted. Yesterday, we all saw why he wanted it, and, for the first time in a very long time, we saw why we might want him to. This is the ideal. If only it could always be like this.