When is it not a crazy game in Sacramento? This one went down to the wire and one of the most unexpected heroes was Joakim Noah, who sank two free throws after being intentionally fouled with 2:09 remaining to give the Knicks the lead for good at 98-97.
But let’s get to the real story of the game: Carmelo Anthony. You think Phil Jackson was quite satisfied while watching Melo pour in 15 of his 33 points in the first quarter, show quick hands deflecting passes, running the floor and — did you happen to notice? — making quick decisions with the basketball?
While his comments, in context, were mostly constructive and tame, the suggestion that he is a “ball hog” — the media interpretation, not his words — upset Melo and caught him off guard when he was approached about it after the loss to the Cavaliers on Wednesday. Melo said Jackson’s critique was “not something I expect” and that he didn’t know “where he was coming from with those comments.” The preference, Melo said, was to have such conversations behind closed doors.
But if you’re paying attention and know your history, you know that’s not how Phil Jackson operates.
He famously rode Kobe Bryant throughout the years and often made Bryant furious with things he said in the media. In a 2015 interview with GQ Magazine, Bryant said there were many times he was “done” with Jackson.
“It drove me at a maniacal pace. Because either consciously or [subconsciously], he put a tremendous amount of pressure on me to be efficient and to be great . . . and to be great NOW,” Bryant said.
While the media ate up this Hollywood drama of a feud between Kobe and Phil, the Lakers benefitted from inspired play from their star player.
See the parallel?
Melo has been good this season and, in fact, better with moving the ball. There are still times he will break the play or hold the ball for too long, which causes his teammates to stand around and the offense to stall. But those moments are getting fewer and far between, which has been positive. And there are also times when his effort level drops, especially in transition or on defense.
What we saw in Sacramento, especially in that first quarter, is that Melo can be a dominant player when he is maxing out.
He had a terrific game but struggled with his shooting in the fourth quarter and after hitting his first 12 free throws, he missed two to ice it with 2 seconds left. But his hustle did affect DeMarcus Cousins’ desperation heave that bounced off the front rim and would have counted because it was released with 0.1 on the game clock. So if Melo’s not there, does Boogie make that shot?
If Jackson doesn’t say anything, does Melo play the inspired game he did to begin an important road trip for this team? Does he take the team out to dinner on Thursday night to refocus the group after Wednesday’s defeat at The Garden?
And as the Knicks head to Los Angeles, where Jackson will be waiting to meet them, will Melo see him and realize he just got the Kobe Treatment?
While some continue to suggest that Jackson and the Knicks move on from Melo, Jackson is clearly showing us his intention to attempt to get the most out of his star player who wields the power of the no-trade clause.
It’s not Jackson’s responsibility to inform the media of this strategy. It’s the media he intends to use as a tool. Just check history and see it’s what he’s done throughout his championship career.
The Knicks continue this five-game road trip on Sunday against the Lakers. It’s a 9:30 p.m. tip-off on the East Coast, so we’ll have Knicks Game Night at 9 p.m. on MSG Network.