This time when Carmelo Anthony missed, he grinned. It wasn’t that he was amused, but perhaps he finally resigned to the will of this season.
Hours before his turnaround fadeaway jumper against a double-team bounced out with 14 seconds left and the Knicks trailing by one, before he was caught watching on defense and victimized by a backdoor cut by Justin Anderson to score the go-ahead hoop for the 76ers, he had defied the ideals of the franchise focusing on draft lottery positioning.
“We’re still playing for something,” he said.
Courtney Lee, who missed a clean look for a game-tying three at the buzzer, put it simply.
“Time’s running out,” he said.
The Knicks (25-37) are 4.5 games out of a playoff spot with 21 games left. Looking the other way, the Knicks hold the 7th spot in the draft lottery — 4.3% chance to win — and are within two games of moving as high as 5th, which gives an 11.5% chance to win.
“It’s a terrible way to think,” Melo said before the game. “No player in sports should be thinking about that.”
He’s right. No player should play to lose. No player should want to encourage a losing environment. But players also should be invested in the future of the franchise and recognize the need to build up the roster through the draft when free agency — in this world of super-max contracts and a CBA that heavily rewards staying with your home team — is no longer the quickest route to a rebuild.
So there’s a bit of a moral conflict here and it’s understood.
What’s also understood is games between the Knicks and Sixers have become must-see because they’ve produced some wild endings. In January it was T.J. McConnell with the buzzer-beater, which Melo avenged last week with his game-winner with three-tenths of a second left. Then came this one, which went Philadelphia’s way on the Anderson cut after Derrick Rose missed a layup that would have given the Knicks a three-point lead with 46 seconds left.
Rose also had a drive knocked away by McConnell with 17 seconds left with the Knicks down one.
“I put this game on myself,” a somber Rose said afterward. “I just missed a layup.”
While Rose shouldered the blame, there was blame volleyed around in and out of the locker room, which is expected at this point of a season like this.
“We play the same way throughout the course of the game,” Melo told reporters. “And when teams make adjustments, we’re still playing the same way as teams make those adjustments defensively.”
That could be viewed as a nod toward the coaching or the point guard who is running the offense. Rose, it should be noted, has several times expressed a lack of enthusiasm for the Triangle Offense.
Jeff Hornacek‘s eyes these days say much more than his words. He was asked about the final possession but opted instead to discuss the one before it, which resulted in McConnell knocking the ball off Rose’s hand on a drive. Rose appeared to be fouled on the drive, but a review showed the ball did go off of Rose’s hand.
The Knicks did get the ball right back thanks to hustle by Lance Thomas — who’s great efforts at both ends were overshadowed by the loss — and that led to Melo’s miss. But here’s Hornacek discussing the possession prior to that:
“Derrick felt like he had the lane there and it closed up on him. They must have got their hand on it and knocked it off his leg, I guess.”
Sounds like Hornacek would have preferred another option for that play.
But as we’ve seen many times this season, including all three games against the Sixers, the Knicks held a comfortable lead and should have been able to put the game away. Instead, they yielded the momentum based on the simple fundamental of being outworked.
“I don’t know if we were tired at that point,” he said of a 16-1 run by Philly in the second quarter that halted a great start by the Knicks. “We settled and then didn’t get any stops.”
The Knicks bench was outscored 40-9 in the game.
Hornacek was also frustrated by the defense, which fell back into bad habits after consecutive games of promising improvement.
“We had a lot of breakdowns on the weak side,” he said.
Remember the Justin Anderson backdoor cut we told you about?
“They got several back cuts on us,” he continued. “They got several drop-off passes and we had a tendency to watch the play develop and guys were cutting right by us.”
Melo doesn’t want to hear about the draft or the lottery. But talked about the lack of adjustments in a game this team had to win to keep alive their faint hopes of a playoff push while Hornacek put a spotlight on how the defense was exposed by backdoor cuts, such as the one that essentially won the game for the Sixers.
Truth is, Melo is right. Either way, this franchise is playing for something.