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A premium blend roasts the Jazz

  It was just one play in a 48-minute blowout, just two points out of a season-high 131, but to stood out as the ultimate highlight for the Knicks. It came with 6:01 left in the first quarter, on a simple half-court set that started with Carmelo Anthony with the ball. Amar'e Stoudemire came with a split-second screen and a quick roll and Anthony slammed a bounce pass through the seam right to Stoudemire for the finish.

That was the second of five assists Anthony recorded in the game, which is a noteworthy statistic for a player who put up a team-high 34 points on a team-high 16 shots. The way George Karl tells it, whenever the ball left Carmelo's hands and reached a teammate, it generally was the result of a rebound.

But the fact that ALL five assists went to Stoudemire baskets suggests the development of chemistry between the Knicks' two stars. In Friday's loss to Cleveland, Stoudemire found Anthony twice on hi-lo sets, including a nifty alley-oop play off a spin by Anthony late in the game.

Carmelo and Amar'e combined for 65 points in the win over Utah, as both scored over 30 points together in the same game for the first time since joining forces. But more than scoring, their noticable interest in working together, just as much as a commitment on defense, will be a major reason why the Knicks can be a tough opponent come playoff time: The willingness to share the ball and, as written in the Gospel according to Red Holzman, "Find the open man."

Carmelo seems hell bent lately on proving he didn't come here to just be a high scorer on an average team like he was for most of his career in Denver. OK so he jacked up way too many shots on Sunday night for a guy who was a. ice cold, and b. seeing double-vision after getting poked in the eye early on, but despite that, he did find other ways to contibute to the win, which was by recording seven assists and by grabbing seven rebounds.

And what you're seeing in the last two games is Mike D'Antoni putting the ball more in Carmelo's hand as a playmaker with Chauncey Billups out of the lineup. It gives Carmelo more responsibility with the offense to be more than just a scorer and it also takes pressure off Toney Douglas, who can focus more Doing What Toney Douglas Do, which is scoring the ball.

And while he had the hot hand against the Jazz to get his first 30-plus game as a Knick -- and combine with Stoudemire to post the first game in which both stars eclipse the 30-point mark -- afterward Anthony seemed to want to embrace that role as a facilitator and said he didn't want to be a guy who felt the need to drop 30 every night, even if he knew he could. 

"We hope that we can score 30 points and everybody else contributes in their own way, but for me, personally? I don't want to do that," he said. "I don't want to put that pressure on me to go out there and say that I want to score 30 points a night. I'm past that now."

So by insisting he's grown out of the need to put up big numbers every night, Carmelo sort of admitted he used to focus on getting his numbers every night. Of course Karl could have told us that, too.

But, Carmelo can't say this and yet wave off Anthony Carter in the final seconds of the third quarter only to hoist a ridiculous, contested three-pointer before the buzzer, right Mike?

"With those two guys on the floor we should always take high percentage shots, there should be no reason not to," D'Antoni said. "Although at the end of [quarters] they're good at manufacturing their shots and for more people, that would be a forced shot. But they can score it."

Talk about handling that answer as delicately as possible.

"The key is not caring who scored or how," D'Antoni then said, "just to make sure the team functions well."

It helped that the Knicks had what turned out to be a scrimmage against a Jazz team that seemed to have no real interest in defending, especially in the first quarter. And when the Knicks came out hitting just about everything, they were quickly demoralized. But by having success from good ball movement and sincere unselfishness, Carmelo and the Knicks saw exactly how they needed to play. Trust the system.

Find the open man? The Knicks recorded 32 assists on 46 field goals made against the Jazz.

And with so much defensive focus on Carmelo and Amar'e, the supporting cast is sure to get a lot of opportunities to score. Monday's game started off with Landry Fields and Toney Douglas getting the early looks. Once the defenses started to adjust to them, then Carmelo and Amar'e got into the act.

"The goal is to always keep moving and always keep the defense on its toes," Stoudemire said. "If we keep the ball moving like we did tonight and other guys hit open shots, it's going to be hard to guard us."

And by not focusing so much on their numbers, the two stars will still get theirs thanks to the system.

Newsday's copy editor (and crack statistician in his spare time) Greg Gutes informed us tonight that through eight games since the trade, Amar'e is averaging 27.3 points per game and shooting 54.7 percent from the field, while Carmelo is averaging 25.9 points per game while shooting 45.3 percent and hitting 10 of 25 from three-point range.

That puts both over their season scoring averages. So much for the inabilty to co-exist.

* * *
* - With Bill Walker (sore knee) out for a second straight game, Roger Mason Jr. continues to earn his burn, with nine points (3-for-6 from the field, 2-for-4 from downtown), four rebounds, three assists and three steals in 25:15. So what's with the guy in Mason's No. 14 Virginia jersey who was sitting courtside at the Garden last Wednesday against the Hornets and also showed up in Atlanta on Sunday? "I have no idea who that is," Mason Jr. said with a laugh. The mystery stalker has brought good luck.

* - Douglas had another good night with 20 points in 23:15 and he nailed five of seven from downtown, plus six assists. Douglas immediately gave credit to Billups' presence and even though he's not playing, Billups is still making a positive impact on the game. "Chauncey and I talk all the time and he is a great mentor to me," Douglas said.

* - Every active player got into the game and only one didn't score. That would be Jared Jeffries, who despite yet another goose egg (he has exactly one point in four games with the Knicks) still had his usual positive impact, some of which are seen in the boxscore (six rebounds, three assists, a steal and a blocked shot) and some are not (twice he saved a ball headed out of bounds and regained possession by throwing it off a Jazz player). Would it kill him to finish a layup? Sure, eventually he's gonna need to put one of those bunnies down. But Jeffries' impact in this kinda-sorta matchup zone the Knicks are starting to play with some regularity can't be overlooked. We still need to see this team do a better job defending the pick-and-roll and it was just weird seeing the Jazz not running the pick-and-roll, which had been such a staple of former coach Jerry Sloan's offense for a quarter century.

* - Ronny Turiaf's knee has been giving him trouble all season long and it is an issue that has kept the burly center from being consistently effective. Surgery isn't an option right now but what the training staff is working on is getting orthotics for Turiaf to wear that may help the situation, along with some rehab that is directly focused on strengthening the muscles around the knee to help stabilize it better. Turiaf's biggest issue, aside from chronic pain that he endures, is when the knee starts to deteriorate, he can't move laterally as quickly as he can when the knee is feeling good. Right now he is listed as day-to-day, but it may be a little while before Turiaf makes a return to the lineup and rightly so. The Knicks need him as close to 100 percent as possible before the playoffs, where his energy and toughness will be valuable assets off the bench.

* - Derrick Brown saw his first action as a Knick and the second-year forward proved one thing: he's got springs. Brown had six points on three dunks in the fourth quarter.
* - Shelden Williams got the most out of extended action in garbage time, as he put up 13 points with a career-high six assists and five rebounds in 24:54. Williams doesn't move all that well at this point of his career, but he is an experienced veteran with a big, strong body and you can't have enough of those on the bench come playoff time.

* - Yes, playoff talk. Is it too soon? According to Newsday night editor Jeff Weinberg, the Knicks win coupled by the Bobcats loss brought the Knicks' magic number to clinch a playoff spot to 12.

* - The 33 wins marks the most D'Antoni has won in three seasons with the Knicks. It also matches the most wins the franchise has recorded since 2003-04, when 39 wins was enough to earn the final playoff berth in the East. The Knicks won 33 games in 2004-05 and 2006-07. The team hasn't reached the 40-win mark since the 2000-01 season (48-34). They need just seven wins in the final 20 games to achieve that.

* - The Knicks improved to 9-6 in the second game of a back-to-back and they've now completed five back-to-back sweeps out of 15 so far this season. The next one comes this week, with a tough road back-to-back starting against the red-hot Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday and then a TNT spot against the Mavericks in Dallas on Thursday.
* - Andy Rautins saw his first live action since Feb. 2 and had the Garden roaring for him to shoot. Tough spot for anyone to be in, especially because you don't want to come in gunning, but it was good to see him drill his second attempt just to give the people what they wanted. Fans have fun with these moments and for a player it's flattering to hear the crowd cheer for you, but deep down as a competitor, you have to believe Rautins wants nothing to do with being a mascot.

* - Larry Johnson was in attendance for the game and the Garden crowd gave him a rousing ovation when he was introduced. Amar'e even saluted him with the trademark "LJ" arm sign that Johnson made famous during the run to the NBA Finals in 1999. The replay of Johnson's famous four-point play against the Pacers that year was shown on GardenVision and I'm still looking for the foul. So is Donnie Walsh.

* - Speaking of Walsh, he was in no mood to discuss his future, which remains in limbo with six weeks left in the season. Asked about his contract status -- the team has an option for next season that has to be picked up by April 30 -- Walsh shot back, "None of your damn business." 

New York Sports