There will come a time later in the season, if a playoff berth or winning record is secured, when we’ll look back at this as The Ron Baker Game.
But for the Knicks to become the team that Jeff Hornacek envisions, it would be better to look back on these last two games as the point in the season when Carmelo Anthony became exactly what the Knicks need him to be at this stage of his career.
“Melo was great on kicking out,” Hornacek said of his star’s 10 assists, which went along with 26 points and 6 rebounds and a +22 in 39 minutes. “Guys were filling spots.”
He had 56 points and 17 assists in this home-and-home with the Bucks, one of the top defensive teams in the NBA. He fell three assists short of a triple-double in Wednesday’s loss and four rebounds shy of a triple-double in Friday’s win. He was patient and multi-dimensional.
On Thursday, Melo talked about how he carries the weight of the franchise on his shoulders. “When we win,” he said, “it’s us. When we lose, it’s me.”
But while Kristaps Porzingis‘ outstanding return, Baker’s surprisingly effective fourth-quarter run and Lance Thomas‘ gritty defense on a game-clinching play were notable story lines, Melo’s dynamic all-around performance was the catalyst.
He played the entire fourth quarter and had 12 points and three assists. All told, despite shooting just 3 for 10, he factored in on 20 of the Knicks’ 33 points in the quarter. Also, while Jabari Parker looked like vintage Melo over the first three-quarters (25 points), he came up empty in the final quarter.
But more importantly was how Melo celebrated the win: by immediately finding Baker, the unassuming rookie, and proudly patting his shoulder and praising his effort.
“Major minutes, big minutes,” Melo said afterward. He went on to say Baker’s performance was “the reason we came out with this victory tonight.”
You want a crazy, useless stat? This was the first game the Knicks have won when Baker scores. They were previously 0-7 when Baker hit at least one shot.
On the Knicks PostGame Show on MSG, I said this is the type of night you want to bottle, save and have Melo drink it before every game. When he meets those frustrating points of exasperation with a demanding fan base, just look to this game to know: this is how they want you to play.
This is how this team needs you to play.
Another reason to think this team can pull out of the tailspin from the past two weeks was how Derrick Rose handled being benched in the fourth quarter while Baker shined. Rose, who had 12 points and 8 assists in 32 minutes but struggled again finishing at the rim, said he had no problem with Hornacek’s decision.
“I believe in my teammates,” Rose said. “He made a decision to go with Ron. As a teammate, I can’t get mad at that. Ron works his [butt] off, so I understand.”
This is how a team comes together. When the stars are selfless and the team and winning become the bigger priority.
If Wednesday’s buzzer-beater at the Garden was a crushing loss, then Friday night’s win in Milwaukee was equally uplifting.
“Oh my God, we needed it,” Porzingis said. “We needed it more than anything.”
Now what the Knicks (17-19) need after snapping a six-game losing streak is to start a winning streak and get back over the .500 mark. Opportunity remains in January and it continues with this team showing more grit Saturday night in Indiana against the Pacers. It’s the second game of a back-to-back and the third game in four nights and those situations have been a major issue for this team.
The Knicks are 0-6 in the second game of a back-to-back so far this season. They’re also 2-4 in the third-game-in-four-nights scenario.
It will be interesting to see how the Knicks come out after the inspiring win in Milwaukee. Did they finally realize the level of intensity they need to bring on the defensive end? Has Melo found comfort in playing “Old Man Game” as an all-around player? And will Hornacek stick with Baker as the backup point guard behind Rose or will the struggling Brandon Jennings get another shot to redeem himself?
We’ll have the pregame coverage on Knicks Game Night on MSG starting at 6:30 p.m.