Can Carmelo live up to what he wished for?
MIAMI -- This is where he wanted to be, long before he ever put on a Knicks jersey.
Stuck in the Rocky Mountains, Carmelo Anthony dreamed of riding through the Canyon of Heroes. He dreamed of being a star on the world's biggest stage, of leaving Denver for New York, of putting a team together that could go up against the very best.
People close to him warned him about what he would be up against, warned him that if he engineered a trade from Denver to New York, he'd better be prepared to do everything he could to bring a title to his new city.
"I told him not to go to New York unless he thought he could win it there," said Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, who coached Anthony for a season in college and won a national title with the freshman. "If you don't win there, you will get blamed. Whoever comes to New York -- whether it be Alex Rodriguez in baseball or Carmelo in basketball -- it's on them to win. That's the way it is.
"He knew that. Carmelo understood what he was getting into. And he wanted it."
Anthony hopes to take a step toward that dream Saturday when his Knicks -- and make no mistake about it, they are his Knicks -- open the playoffs in Miami against the second-seeded Heat.
Though beating one of the best teams in the NBA is a stiff challenge, the Knicks head into the playoffs playing as well as any No. 7 seed in recent memory. This team is a far cry from the one that was swept by Boston in the first round of the playoffs last season, just three months after Anthony was traded from Denver to New York.
It is a team that has become unusually close after surviving a tsunami of a season, a season in which Anthony's status as the most important player on the team was questioned and then loudly confirmed.
It is a team that emerged from the regular season with a new coach, a new defensive-minded attitude and a new offensive mind-set that makes the best of Anthony's prodigious talents by giving him the freedom to put up 25 or more shots a game.
Anthony enters the postseason playing what probably is the best basketball of his career. In 12 games in April, he averaged 29.8 points and 7.3 rebounds, hitting 49.5 percent of his shots from the field and 46.0 percent from three-point range. Anthony was named Eastern Conference player of the month Friday.
"Right now, he's at the peak of his game," said the Knicks' J.R. Smith, who was a teammate of Anthony's in Denver. "I mean, nobody's even coming close to matching his play [on offense]. That's what we need from him right now."
The way Anthony has been playing the past month presents plenty of challenges, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
"He can put the ball in the basket as well as anybody in this league and do it a lot of different ways," Spoelstra said. "In the post, in transition, he shoots the ball terrifically."
Anthony has always been one of the best offensive players in the game. The knock on him was that he couldn't lead a team, couldn't integrate his skills with other offensive weapons on his teams. Anthony has made it out of the first round of the playoffs only once in his career, when the Nuggets went to the Western Conference finals in the 2008-09 season.
Boeheim has taken great issue with those who said earlier in the season that Anthony couldn't play with point guard Jeremy Lin. He believes Anthony has the talent and mind-set to play with anybody but ends up getting the blame when things go wrong because he has always been the best player on his teams.
"It just goes with the territory," Boeheim said. "That's the way it is in the NBA, and that's the way it's always been. Carmelo can handle that. He's a big boy."
Anthony knows that no matter what he's done this season, and this past month, it will all be forgotten if the Knicks can't give Miami some fight. He knows that an ugly showing in the first round, even against a powerhouse team like the Heat, will cause everyone to revisit the question of whether he can lead a team. And he thinks that's the way it should be.
Said Anthony: "The playoffs are where it really begins for everybody, especially for great players. I feel very confident about the team we have right now. We shall see."