New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) reacts in the first half against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena. / Mark D. Smith, USA TODAY Sports
NEW YORK - This is why Carmelo Anthony came to New York, and this is why the New York Knicks gave away so much to get him. When the playoffs begin, the team wants to be relevant. And this season, for the first time since 1999-2000 when they reached the Eastern Conference finals, the Knicks are relevant in the postseason.
Anthony is responsible for that.
The 10-year veteran and six-time All-Star transformed his game and his reputation to lead the fabled franchise to the Atlantic Division title and the second seed in the Eastern Conference. The Knicks open their series against the seventh-seeded Boston Celtics in the first game of the playoffs Saturday at 3 p.m. ET, on ABC.
"I did envision us being up the top one or two in the Eastern Conference. I did envision us winning our division eventually," said Anthony, who came to the Knicks from the Denver Nuggets in a trade-deadline deal two seasons ago. "Right now, this playoff series is important for myself. It's very important for us as a team, as a city (and) as an organization. We're looking forward to this."
He's not the only one. Of all the players in the playoffs, who has more to prove than Anthony? His 2003 draft classmates and two good friends, the Miami Heat's LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, have championship rings. Maybe Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul and Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard are on the list as well.
Anthony has led a team out of the first round once: in 2009, when the Nuggets lost in the Western Conference finals. Rarely, though, has one of Anthony's teams been the higher seed.
Hope of a franchise
Film director and famous Knicks fan Spike Lee, wearing an orange fedora, orange sweater and blue pants, points to the Madison Square Garden rafters and the 1969-70 and 1972-73 championship banners.
"It's all about championships," Lee said. He didn't say the pressure of getting it falls on Anthony, but Lee added, "All the great players want that kind of pressure, and Carmelo is one of the greats."
With more than a first- and second-round appearance expected, Anthony doesn't feel the weight.
"I don't feel pressure," he said. "There's no pressure at all. None."
ESPN/ABC analyst and former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, the last to coach them to the Finals, agrees.
"I don't think he's under any extra pressure. He's played with pressure ever since he's been in the NBA," Van Gundy said. "I don't think he has anything to prove. He's a great player."
Anthony produced one of his best all-around seasons - offensively and defensively - in 2012-13. He led the league in scoring (28.7 points a game) and averaged 6.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists. He shot 44.9% from the field and 37.9% on three-point attempts.
But it's his offensive efficiency that made a difference. The Knicks scored 110.5 points per 100 possessions with Anthony on the floor this season, the second-highest offensive rating in his career and eight points better than last season.
Was this Anthony's best regular season?
"I would say that. I would say that by far," he said. "Just as far as the team's success, how I've been playing, how much fun it's been for myself, for everybody."
Anthony revealed his growing maturity and expanding game early in the season with 30 points and 10 rebounds in New York's season-opening victory against Miami.
In the third game he dived into the stands for a loose ball.
And Anthony had eight games of 30 points or more during the Knicks' 16-4 start.
With injuries mounting in the middle of the season and the Knicks struggling, Anthony carried them, ensuring New York remained in position to earn the No. 2 seed. Down the stretch, he was magnificent. From March 18 to Sunday, the Knicks went 15-1, including 13 consecutive wins. In 15 of those games, Anthony averaged 32.5 points and had seven consecutive games of 30 or more points, including 50 in another win against the Heat.
Fans have directed "MVP" chants his way all season.
"That's not up to me. We'll see what happens," Anthony said. "The only thing I could do is keep playing the way I've been playing and let the basketball speak for itself."
His game has spoken. Donnie Walsh, now Indiana Pacers president of basketball operations, orchestrated the Anthony trade in 2011, when he held the same position with the Knicks. He knew Anthony was capable of this.
"Oh yeah, I did," Walsh said. "That was the only reason that we would give up the amount and kind of players we did."
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Van Gundy credits Knicks coach Mike Woodson, who took over as interim head coach in March 2012 before being given the full-time job in May, for moving Anthony to power forward and general manager Glen Grunwald for putting shooters around Anthony.
"Mike Woodson has done an incredible job coaching the Knicks," Van Gundy said, "and that one decision right there has as much to do with their success this year as any decision.
"To me, Carmelo's improved his passing each year, both his willingness to pass and his efficiency with the pass. Right now, when he's guarded at the four and surrounded by a good rebounding center in Tyson Chandler and three good three-point shooters, he's impossible to guard."
Anthony has trust in his teammates and no longer feels he has to do everything. In the process, it has made him a more efficient scorer and a more willing passer.
"You have to look at it from a unique point of view," Walsh said. "If you can score the way he does and you don't have guys on the team you are sure can make the shot, then you're probably going to shoot it."
Now he has those players: J.R. Smith, Steve Novak, Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, Iman Shumpert.
Woodson even takes some credit. "When I took over ... I just told him I was going to hold him accountable for things when they go good and when they go bad," Woodson said. "He met the challenge, and it's been that way all this season this year."
Reaching a new level
Anthony's transformation began in the offseason. Though he knew coming to New York meant he would take the blame when the Knicks lost, he was stung by criticism that he couldn't play with some teammates, such as forward Amar'e Stoudemire or former Knicks guard Jeremy Lin.
Anthony vowed to use the 2012 Olympics to improve his game and prove he wasn't a selfish and one-dimensional scorer.
Stoudemire, whose status for the playoffs is undetermined as he recovers from knee surgery, played in 26 games with Anthony this season and is impressed.
"The way he played and the way he led us this year was incredible," Stoudemire said. "He took the momentum from the USA gold medal team right into this season.
"With a leader like him, we like our chances in the postseason. He's playing on another level right now."
Kidd, a 19-year veteran, knows that level. He has been there and sees similarities to a former teammate who won a title two seasons ago.
"As he gets older, he wants to advance and not just be first round and done," Kidd said. "He wants to get to the Eastern Conference finals. â?¦ He thrives on the stage. He loves having the ball and being able to deliver. I compare him to Dirk (Nowitzki) - a great scorer (who) understands the situation and loves that stage when a team needs a basket."
As he takes the floor at Madison Square Garden against the rival Celtics this weekend, the Knicks are countingcount on him to do just that.
Carmelo Anthony's moment has arrived.
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