It began with the pregame introductions as Knicks public address announcer Mike Walczewski recited in a monotone the names of the first four starters for the visiting Portland Trail Blazers. And then he sped up his cadence, stopping short of his old trademark, “Carrrrmelo Anthony,” but drawing some excitement with his words.
He didn’t need to because the Madison Square Garden crowd came with only love for the former Knicks standout, making his first appearance in New York since returning from more than a year out of the NBA. He had the crowd behind him and he provided the highlights and memories with a season-high 26 points. But the Knicks got the win, taking their third straight victory with a 117-93 win over the Trail Blazers.
“Love, the love was definitely felt tonight,” Anthony said. “From the fans that were here, just the city as a whole, just being back. I think that feeling is kind of hard to explain. But for me to kind of get that ovation, I think I’ve always had the love from the city like that. But to be back in this building where I spent so many years, that love felt extremely good tonight.”
If the night was for the return of the star it was the less heralded players who made the difference. Mitchell Robinson matched his career-high with 22 points on 11-for-11 shooting and Frank Ntilikina handed out 10 assists without a turnover, clamped down defensively on Portland star Damian Lillard and brought the Garden crowd to its feet with a driving dunk in the fourth quarter. Julius Randle also finished with 22 points and added 13 rebounds.
Anthony’s introduction drew a loud ovation and every time he touched the ball the crowd raised its voice in anticipation again as if it was 2013 when he was leading the Knicks to 54 wins and it’s best postseason showing in the last two decades.
That was the season that Anthony finished third in the NBA’s Most Valuable Player balloting and carried the Knicks to a playoff series win over Boston before his drive was blocked by Roy Hibbert in Indiana, signaling an end to the team’s championship aspirations.
While Anthony’s time in New York was complicated — much of the complication stemming from his relationship with since deposed team President Phil Jackson. While Anthony pushed for a chance to play in New York, forcing his way out of Denver in a trade (which also created some ill will among the fan base, happy to finally have a star who wanted to come to New York, but displeased with the price the Knicks had to pay in the trade) and then resisted the calls from contending teams as he toured the nation as a free agent, his contract almost immediately became a source of acrimony with Jackson.
Jackson sniped at Anthony through sources and with cryptic statements. Anthony resisted the urge to hit back. After Jackson was fired Anthony finally agreed to waive his no-trade clause if the Knicks could find a suitable trade partner for him. That came just ahead of training camp in 2017 when he agreed to a deal that sent him to Oklahoma City. Both sides suffered with the Knicks hitting new lows and Anthony moving from OKC after one season to Houston, where he lasted just 10 games before the team exiled him.
He spent more than a year waiting for a team to call before Portland finally took a chance. This marked his 20th game with the Blazers and he has started every one. He had 16 points in Portland’s one-sided win over the Knicks last month, but was waiting for this opportunity to return to the Garden.
Back in action he already earned Western Conference Player of the Week honors once and has shown he still can score at an elite level. As Anthony made his way off the court in the end he exchanged jerseys with Marcus Morris and handed his sneakers to a fan. He enjoyed his day back in the Garden and was asked if he would like to have his No. 7 Knicks jersey retired.
“I don’t know,” he said, smiling. “You’ve got to ask them. I did glance up at the rafters today during the national anthem. So you know they say in life you’ve got to envision, so I was envisioning, seeing Anthony hanging up there.”
Carmelo Anthony is in the Top 50 of many of the NBA’s all-time offensive categories (ranking in parentheses):
Points 25,849 (21)
Points per game 23.87 (22)
2-PT FGs 7,859 (35)
3-PT FGs 1,390 (41)
FGs 9,249 (25)
FTs 5,961 (23)