CHICAGO -- Carmelo Anthony wasn't the most liked player in his locker room the last time the Knicks were here, but he returns as one of the most popular ones on his team and in all of New York.
Sometimes it just takes a little hard work and dedication.
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Anthony has raised his level of effort and commitment on both ends since the Knicks last played in Chicago, which ended up being Mike D'Antoni's final game as coach. They had lost six straight, and the changes -- in coaches and Anthony's behavior -- have helped the Knicks go 11-3 since Mike Woodson took over.
The Knicks (29-27) go for their third straight win Tuesday night against the Bulls, whom they beat in overtime, 100-99, behind Anthony's 43 points Sunday. A victory would put the Knicks three games above .500 for the first time this season. They were six games under after losing in Chicago on March 12.
"That seems like it was forever ago -- that was a long time ago," Anthony said. "I think guys' mentality and focus level is just a little bit different than it was back then. Right now, we're in crunch time. I think guys know the importance of how big these games are. That's the biggest difference, guys just locking in and focusing in right now."
That night in Chicago, Anthony didn't join a huddle, had very little interaction with his teammates and later voiced his displeasure about the Knicks' play. One player who didn't want to be quoted couldn't explain why Anthony wouldn't join the huddle, and he admitted things were not good in the locker room.
But things are good now, and it starts with Anthony. He has shown some fire on defense and has been on fire offensively.
He had his best and most dramatic game of the season Sunday. He hit an overtime-forcing three-pointer with 11.2 seconds left in the fourth quarter and a game-winning three with 8.2 seconds left in the extra period.
Anthony has averaged 29.9 points and shot 49 percent in leading the Knicks to a 5-2 record without the injured Amar'e Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin.
The Knicks will need more big games from Anthony, especially on this huge two-game road trip. They're tied with Philadelphia for seventh in the Eastern Conference but hold the tiebreaker because they won the season series. The ninth-place Bucks, who lost to the Thunder, 109-89, Monday night, fell 11/2 games behind the Knicks and 76ers. Milwaukee hosts the Knicks Wednesday, and if the Bucks win, they will take the season series. "I'm anxious to see how we step up and meet the challenge when we get to Chicago," Woodson said.
The Knicks left for these two games brimming with confidence. They have beaten Orlando twice, Indiana twice -- it would have been three times if they hadn't blown a 17-point third-quarter lead last week -- and the Bulls and the 76ers once with Woodson at the helm.
"We're defending much better and offensively we're making shots," Woodson said. "We're averaging right at 100 points per game . . . and our defense is holding opposing teams to 88, 87 points per game. Any time you do that, you're going to put yourself in position to win a lot of games. So that's how we've been playing and I expect us to continue to play that way if we're going to make the playoffs."