Carmelo Anthony needed multiple replays to be convinced that he did the right thing by passing up a potential game-winning shot and passing the ball to Jose Calderon on Friday night in San Antonio. The old Anthony wouldn’t have thought twice in that situation.
“I probably take that shot,” he said. “I probably make it, too. But I probably take that shot a couple of years ago.”
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The older Anthony is more mature and giving. He’s putting his teammates in position to make plays more than ever.
It doesn’t always work out. Calderon missed the three-pointer at the buzzer and the Knicks lost by a point. But Anthony knows he made the right play. It was a better shot than he would have gotten.
The sequence was the perfect example of Anthony’s evolution as a player. The old Anthony likely would have forced a shot, even with three Spurs on him, including reigning Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard, who had frustrated him all night.
After the final buzzer, Anthony leaned over, wondering if he had made a mistake. Derek Fisher came over and told him he made the right play by trusting his teammate.
“I think he’s been showing a lot more of that the last few weeks, and that’s helped us to get a little bit better in the last week or two,” Fisher said. “I think guys are feeling the trust coming from him.
“I think he’s allowing space for his teammates to find their games and what they do well. Now he’s starting to find out how he can dominate the game in other fashions. Those are the things that leaders do.”
Anthony’s shots per game (17.8) and scoring average (21.7) are his lowest since his second season. His assists per game (3.84) are the highest in his 13-year career. He has had 10 games with at least five assists and has led or tied for the team lead in that category 15 times.
Anthony, who has two career triple-doubles, has flirted with three in the last 3 1⁄2 weeks, including two in the last four games. He missed by one assist Dec. 16 against Minnesota, three assists last Tuesday night in Atlanta and two assists Sunday night against Milwaukee.
With Anthony giving more, the Knicks (19-20) are getting better results. They already have two more victories than all of last season.
The old Anthony needed — or felt the need — to score 25 to 35 points for his team to win. This season, he’s facilitating more, initiating the offense and setting up his teammates.
If Anthony can truly develop in those areas — especially in the triangle, in which wing players Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Kobe Bryant excelled — he might change some opinions.
“I doubt it,” he said.
Right, he’s had too much history as a scorer. But two important factors in the Knicks’ current win total are Anthony’s health and his all-around game.
That doesn’t diminish Kristaps Porzingis’ impact, Arron Afflalo’s presence or the offseason moves that improved the roster and brought in team-first guys. Anthony believes in them and knows their success will lead to the Knicks succeeding.
“I’ve always been asking for the help to take that burden off me to have to go out there and score 25, 30 and 35 points a night just to have a chance to win the basketball game,” Anthony said. “That becomes a big burden on your shoulders. I realize the guys on this team, they can take some of that burden off.
“It’s not going to be every night. There’s going to be some nights where I have to score the basketball.”
Former Knicks coach and ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy doesn’t see that much of a change in Anthony. The one thing he noted was that his decision-making has been quicker because he isn’t holding the ball as much. But Van Gundy believes Anthony was always a willing passer and has much better players to pass to now.
“You’re willing to trust talent more than you are non-talent,” Van Gundy said. “When you have better players around you, you get better results, which I think breeds more trust.
“Their team this year is so much better constructed. It fits better together. I think it’s as much about maybe what he’s doing a little bit differently but also about who he’s surrounded by.”
Another example of Anthony’s being more selfless came during Wednesday night’s win in Miami. He was hot, but he never forced shots to show just how hot he was. He played within the team concept, shot 9-for-12 and scored 25 points. Robin Lopez had the same shooting numbers, helped by some Anthony assists.
“He played a sound, sound game,” said Van Gundy, who worked that game for ESPN. “The numbers weren’t staggering, but they don’t need to be every night. He’ll still have those games, but he doesn’t have to get 30 for them to win. But I love the way he played in Miami. I thought he was tremendous.”
Afflalo played with Anthony for 1½ seasons in Denver and has noticed a subtle difference.
“He’s always played the game the way he’s played the game,” Afflalo said. “But maybe he’s more cognizant of picking his spots in the game and allowing others to flourish a little bit more.”
And the Knicks are better for it.