The Knicks Fix: After Enlightenment, Laundry

His eyes were fixed on Jose Calderon, with his hands on his knees, watching as if he were looking through the knothole of a fence. The ball left Calderon’s hands and you could see the anxiety build in the eyes that watched the ball arc to the basket.

Carmelo Anthony gave trust yet another try. This time it paid off. The ball swished through the hoop, The Garden erupted with cheers and Melo dropped his head with relief, clapped his hands and headed to the huddle.

That shot, which helped clinch a win over the Pelicans earlier this month, effectively ended the franchise-worst 16-game losing streak. It also began a building process that Melo has been through before and has been a struggle for him.

Trust.

“At this point, it’s just a matter of giving guys the confidence that they need,” Melo said after that game. “It’s not about me trying to go out there and trying to win the basketball game on my own.”

What’s not nearly as important as that moment of trust is the moments that follow it. Melo has to treat this epiphany as routine and not an exception to the rule. That decision to pass to Calderon was, simply, the right play. The payoff was critical only to enforce the trust, but he has to understand that the right play is the satisfaction and the successful ending is merely a result. But it only becomes part of who he is as a player when it becomes part of his routine.

There is a Zen proverb that best explains it: “After enlightenment, laundry.”

A bit too philosophical? Perhaps. But, hey, at least I didn’t get into Albert Camus existentialism.

And let’s not forget who is running this franchise.

From the day Phil Jackson took over, one of his main goals was to transform Melo’s game from that of a one-dimensional scorer, to a dynamic talent that could thrive in an unselfish system. It’s something he did with Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, though both were much younger in their careers.

When they compare the game’s top players to Melo, they say he doesn’t pass enough. But in order to properly critique his game, you have to understand his thinking. Carmelo isn’t as much a selfish player as he is a self-confident one. In most situations, he believes in his talent more than that of the players around him. He believes it is his responsibility to use that unwavering belief to win the game for his team.

For instance, when he’s passed the ball out of a double-team three times to a wide-open Landry Fields in the corner, the fourth time isn’t going to happen. By that time, he’s telling himself, “I have a better chance making this shot against a double than he does making that shot wide open.”

So, against the Pelicans with the lead slipping away and the desperation to end a long losing streak in his hands late in the game, the fact that Melo made the right play, the instinctual play, and passed the ball to an open Calderon in the corner, took a great amount of surrender to the concept of trust that Phil Jackson has been consistently preaching to his star player.

That shot just had to go in, for reasons that far exceed the critical win it clinched. It needed to go in so Melo could allow himself to trust the system, trust his instinct to make the right play. In a make-or-miss game, where we analyze the shot rather than the play that led to it, the result is the only affirmation.

Since then, we’ve seen Melo continue to lead the team in scoring (he’s averaging 25 points over the last six games), but doing so much more within the flow of the Triangle Offense. His game, while battling through a chronic knee issue and back spasms, is a lot more honest now since the trade that changed the makeup of the roster.

And that hasn’t been lost on Derek Fisher.

“I think Carmelo is continuing to find out more and more how capable he really is of not just statistically leading his team, but emotionally, psychologically, guys are following him and he’s setting the tone out there,” Fisher said.

This came after the win over the Thunder on Wednesday, in which Melo carried the team through the third quarter to match Russell Westbrook’s barrage of scoring, but then yielded to Tim Hardaway Jr. in the fourth quarter, while he was blanketed with double-teams.

It was similar to last Friday’s win over the Magic, when 16-of-18 points down the stretch were scored by three players on 10-day contracts — Langston Galloway, Lance Thomas and Lou Amundson — while Melo drew defenses toward him. On one occasion, Melo tied up his defenders with a big screen that allowed Galloway an open three to seal the win.

The three 10-day players, who essentially replaced JR Smith, Iman Shumpert and Sam Dalembert, have been a revelation for the Knicks and the widely-criticized Triangle Offense. Their play has inspired a renewed belief in the system and, perhaps, has proven that with the right personalities (i.e.: “learners”), it does, in fact, work. Galloway provides aggressive dribble penetration and the ability to shoot the jumper, Amundson runs hard cuts, set solid screens and hustle for offensive rebounds, Thomas does the same and adds a decent shooting touch around the basket and Jason Smith, moved to center, is a very good post passer and mid-range shooter.

They all work well around Melo, who draws so much defensive attention that it opens up opportunities for them.

“That’s kind of what this system is about: just kind of spacing and trying to create something, if not for yourself, than for others, with lots of movement,” Melo said recently. “This is something we kind of thought would be happening earlier in the season. But it’s happening now.”

This is still just a modest stretch of success to end the month of January (4 wins in the last 7 games), but there is no denying that, even in losses, the Knicks look like a much different team than the one over the first 41 games of the season. Still, at 9-38, a lot of fans tell me that playing for lottery positioning is more important to the future than getting wins when you’re 10 games out of a playoff spot.

While this year’s first round pick is extremely important, so is building a culture and an identity that will carry into next season. It is important to show the league, especially prospective free agent targets, that the Triangle does work with the right pieces in place. It’s important for Derek Fisher to show he is not only a capable coach, but one that is gaining valuable experience.

And it’s also important for the ongoing evolution of Carmelo Anthony.

“He’s doing a lot of things that are forcing guys to get to his level,” Fisher said of Melo. “I’m proud of him and I’m excited for where he is right now . . . and where we’re going in the future.