After he had answered question after question as to whether or not he thought he would be traded, one reporter soft-tossed Carmelo Anthony a hanging breaking ball:
“Do you think this team has what it takes to make the playoffs?”
“If I say, ‘No,’ you’ll be all over me,’’’ said Anthony, who clearly has come to understand the nuances of working in the world’s most challenging sports media market. “I mean, of course.”
“We’ve got 25 games left in the season. We got to make a decision starting [Thursday] of what we want to do and how committed we are to making a push. I wouldn’t be sitting here focusing on everybody stepping up and locking into the next 25 games if I didn’t expect to be there in the end.’’
The Knicks returned to action after the All Star Break on Thursday night with a 119-104 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, dropping their record to 23-35. They are five games out of the last playoff spot, which makes this stretch run daunting, but not impossible.
The Knicks trailed by as much as 21 before Anthony scored eight straight points to get the Knicks back into striking distance. But without Joakim Noah (hamstring) and Kristaps Porzingis (played just 16 minutes due to an ankle injury), the Knicks ran out of gas.
Noah missed his sixth straight game. Porzingis injured his ankle at the end of the first half and was expected to have tests done on Friday. Obviously, the status of both will impact the Knicks going forward.
But the cloud of the trade deadline has been lifted and Anthony has shown he can put aside distractions and focus on basketball. In the final 10 games before the deadline, Anthony averaged 26.3 points on 46-percent shooting, up from 23.4 points on 44.3-percent shooting on the season.
Anthony scored 20 points, grabbed five rebounds and had five assists against the Cavs. The Knicks host the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday (7 p.m.; MSG Network) and if Noah and Porzingis can’t play, Anthony will have to shoulder the load.
He’s proven he can do that, but Anthony’s value to this team can’t be measured just by his statistics.
He is more than the face of the franchise. He’s the soul.
“It takes a certain person to play here,’’ said former Knicks guard and Bronx native Rod Strickland. “You know, New York’s a tough town. I’m sure these professional athletes understand that when you step in Madison Square Garden, the media, plus the expectations, it’s tough.
“But tough-minded people make things happen. You got to be tough-minded and you got to be confident, and you got to be humble and go from there. Carmelo is all those things. He always comes ready to do his job, which is the most important thing you can ask of a professional athlete.’’
“Professional is the word I think of when I think of him.’’
That professionalism manifests itself in many ways.
Anthony has treated his teammates to team dinners and counseled younger players on and off the court. His presence has made it easier for young stars such as Porzingis to begin his NBA career in the Big Apple without having to face the full glare of the media spotlight.
Good game or bad game, Anthony is accountable to the media and to Knicks fans. Is it part of the job? Supposedly. But many a New York athlete has disappeared after a poor performance and others have taken to player-friendly websites to enhance their brand.
Anthony faces the music.
“Not enough credit given to him on that,’’ former Knicks great and Brooklyn native Mark Jackson said. “Never hides. Never afraid. Great in the community. Speaks his mind. Has been a leader throughout this league.
“I’ve seen guys buckle when 20,000 people are thinking, ‘Pass the ball, you’re shooting too much.’ He’s a great player and he could care less. He’s going out and he’s getting the job done.’’
Anthony donated $3 million to Syracuse, which he led to the NCAA title as a freshman, to fund The Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center. His Carmelo Anthony Foundation annually rewards 250 middle school students that strive to ‘Be More’ in their family or community.
He’s helped the U.S. win three Olympic gold medals. And when have you seen a headline about Anthony getting into mischief in the wee early morning hours outside one of New York’s many chic night clubs?
“I respect him a thousand times over,’’ Strickland said. “I don’t know what the big deal is. People are going to have their opinions. We forget so quickly.’’
So does the rest of the league.
Orlando Magic coach Frank Vogel, a New Jersey native who got his coaching start under former Knicks and current Louisville coach Rick Pitino, mused about Melo in his last visit to The Garden.
“What he’s done in this game, national championship at Syracuse as a freshmen, OK that’s hard,’’ Vogel said. “What he’s done with FIBA basketball, the Olympics, World Championships. How he’s represented our country. It’s fantastic.
“He’s had a fantastic career. Still a heckuva player. I could just look at it from our standpoint. That guy’s going to be tough to stop tonight. He strikes fear in us and a lot of teams. You’re scouting a team you’re like, ‘Man, how are we going to stop this guy?’ So, a heckuva player.”
A player that wants to be here. When the trade deadline was approaching, Melo, who has a no-trade clause in his contract, said he would be willing to waive it if it made sense for the organization and his family.
It would have been emotionally difficult for Anthony to leave New York. Some players can’t make here. Others don’t want to be anywhere else.
“I don’t think that’s something that I have to keep proving or keep talking about or harping on,’’ Anthony said. “I think that’s said without even saying it. I’ve proven that over the years, time after time after time. I don’t think I have to keep saying that or harping on that. I think people know that.
“People know how I feel about New York, People know how I feel about the Knicks. I don’t think I have to keep talking about it.’’