MADISON SQUARE GARDEN — Carmelo Anthony delivered the blow, full-impact right in the face of his opponent, then broke into a speedy yet awkward backpedal, looking like a man built to play defensive end trying to imitate a cornerback.
And the New York crowd, at their loyal and passionate best, gave him a wild standing ovation. Wait … what?
There were plenty of surreal moments during Carmelo’s first game as a Knick, but for me, that was the standout. When ‘Melo hit a pull-up jumper late in the fourth quarter that was essentially the dagger to seal a win over Milwaukee and soaked in the home crowd’s love as he went back on D, it was as if everybody — the happily dancing moms, the kids rocking #7 jerseys, the guy with the Knicks logo tattooed on his bicep — had forgotten ‘Melo was once an MSG villain. What 2006 Nuggets/Knicks brawl? Who was backpedaling again? Who is Mardy Collins?
Yesterday, I was at MSG from the time ‘Melo and Chauncey Billups were introduced in a late-afternoon press conference until the post-game interviews were over. Here is what happened:
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* The press conference was held at the MSG Theater, and it was more packed than any Knicks media event I’ve been to in five years. There was applause when Carmelo and Chauncey walked in wearing team warm-ups, and Amar’e Stoudemire quietly slipped in the room (or at least tried to) in his own warm-up to sit amongst the media.
* Owner James Dolan began the press conference by public admonishing everyone who reported that Isiah Thomas had anything at all to do with this deal. Isiah isn’t advising “or telling me what to do,” Dolan said. I think he was wagging his finger, but I couldn’t even see Dolan from my vantage point. The man is like five feet tall. But I imagined it must have looked like Bilbo Baggins taking Frodo to task over The Ring. Maybe Isiah wasn’t involved, but I found it strange that neither Donnie Walsh or Mike D’Antoni said anything during the press conference, even though they were on stage. Usually you hear from the GM and the coach.
* Dolan (now I could see him) wore a smile during the photo op surrounded by the Big Three that said, “Who put this sh*t together? Me! That’s who!”
* Milwaukee’s locker room was ghost town during the pre-game media session: Less than half the roster was there, and even fewer media members. Everybody was in the Knicks locker room. When word spread among the Bucks that there was a “STAT & Melo” song playing on the MSG speakers, Chris Douglas-Roberts said, “I respect that. They earned it.”
* Brandon Jennings: “We want to spoil their debut.”
* A Bucks player whom I won’t identify talked about the Deron Williams trade. “Karma’s a bitch, dog. That shit he did to Jerry Sloan? That came back on him.”
* In the NY locker room pre-game, it might have been the first time Anthony Carter was interviewed in 3-4 years. But that was only because Amar’e, Carmelo and Chauncey weren’t around. The name plates revealed that ‘Melo is occupying Wilson Chandler’s old locker, while Chauncey is in Timofey Mozgov’s old locker, Shelden Williams took Ray Felton‘s spot, Renaldo Balkman replaced Danilo Gallinari, and I can’t even remember who had Carter’s locker. Maybe Eddy Curry? Actually, I’m not even sure Curry had a locker this season.
* Oh, and that will be the last time today you hear about the “other” guys in the Carmelo/Chauncey trade. None of them got off the bench.
* It was Legends Night at MSG, so instead of the usual Wiz Khalifa/Drake/Waka layup-line mix preferred by most guys on the Knicks, they let John Starks pick: Heavy D, Boyz II Men and Michael Jackson. I wonder if Bill Walker even knows who Heavy D is.
* New York’s production crew did a great job slapping together a new intro video and a short clip introducing Carmelo. They changed the routine of player intros, too. The starters came out of a tunnel with a smoke machine. Carmelo went first to a HUGE crowd pop, then Chauncey, and Amar’e goes last.
* First play of the game, Landry Fields just misses Amar’e on an alley-oop. I’m actually glad they mistimed it. Had that hit, the building may have actually exploded.
* As if his spot in player intros didn’t say enough, Amar’e seemed to be out to establish early that the Knicks are still his team, going iso and shooting on his first few touches. Carmelo missed his first shot, a short jumper in the lane, but the next possession he got a rebound and putback for his first points as a Knick. Next possession, Chauncey drained a pull-up three in transition for his first bucket for New York.
* The crowd cheered basically every time Carmelo touched the ball and loudly booed any foul called on him. By the end of the game, they were chanting “MEH-LOOOOW” as he shot free throws. Chauncey got a “CHAUN-SEE BILL-UPS!” (clap-clap, clap-clap-clap) chant in the fourth quarter. Amar’e got his usual “MVP” chants, but honestly? His MVP hopes are slim and none this year, especially now.
* Midway through the first quarter, the initial energy burst from the crowd was gone, and everybody (even the players) settled into the realization that this was just a late-February game against Milwaukee. And the Bucks weren’t helping make it entertaining. Their offense stinks. Even against NY’s suspect defense, Milwaukee often had to bust their asses just to get a decent shot. John Salmons has to be the most indispensable player on the roster simply because he’s one of the few guys who can score.
* The crowd woke up for Carmelo’s first dunk, a breakaway where he did the usual Carmelo thing and barely touched the rim.
* Carmelo logged a stint on the court with Fields, Toney Douglas, Walker and Shawne Williams. It seemed like an experiment by D’Antoni to see if he could carry the second unit (and Fields). It didn’t work out, as ‘Melo had trouble scoring on Corey Maggette. By the way, when I saw Maggette before the game, he had more ice and tape on him than James “The Gentlemen Masher” Corcoran‘s corner man.
* First scare of the Carmelo era: He goes spilling into the baseline row of photographers trying to save a loose ball. Turns out it was nothing serious, but Dolan may have needed a change of pants.
* I said before the trade that Chauncey wouldn’t have a problem adjusting to the speed of D’Antoni’s system — and may even be better running it than Felton. Chauncey said in his first press conference that he was running an uptempo offense in Denver. So even though it should be D’Antoni’s job to adjust to his personnel, there’s no need to worry: On back-to-back possessions, Billups flew past everybody for a steal and layup, then got out ahead on a break and fed Douglas for a layup. Chauncey has at least 3-4 years left. If Jason Kidd can still be an impact starter at 37, Chauncey can do it at 34.
* The real “Welcome to NYC” for the new guys: Carlos Delfino got an uncontested offensive rebound while three Knicks stood watching, causing the first boos directed at the home team to come down.
* Douglas (23 pts) hit a three at the end of the third quarter and another big one late in the fourth. He looks like the underrated winner of this trade. He jumped up the food chain to being New York’s sixth man and Chauncey’s primary backup. He’ll have every opportunity to shine.
* There probably would have been more celebrities here had they known the ‘Melo trade was going to happen when it did. As it stands, it’s still a Knicks/Bucks game, so all we got was Chris Rock, Louis C.K., and LaLa.
* Who is the fastest player in the NBA with the ball? The easy answers are Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, LeBron James, etc. Maybe even Jennings enters the discussion. But on the low? Keyon Dooling is a blur. Multiple times he blew past the Knicks by hitting a fifth gear nobody else on the court possessed.
* The Bucks made it interesting, cutting NY’s lead to just two midway through the fourth, but Chauncey, Amar’e and ‘Melo were automatic from the free-throw line, and Chauncey ran the offense like Tom Brady. The East’s newest Big Three is 1-0.
* Carmelo had an instant chemistry with Ronny Turiaf, of all people. ‘Melo always seemed to find him making the right cut to the basket with the right pass. That’s a good friend to make, as Turiaf will be one of Carmelo’s blockers and can show him a hell of a time in New York off the court.
* Rather than mill around the locker rooms, pretty much every reporter and camera person went to the usual press-conference room (not the Theater) as we were promised D’Antoni, Amar’e, Billups and ‘Melo individually.
* D’Antoni on ‘Melo: “You put him on any playground, any court in the world, and he’ll get 27 points and 10 rebounds. That’s what he does.”
* Amar’e says this is why he came to New York, to play on a championship-caliber team with other superstars. Like everyone, he says it will take time to gel, and they need to work on their defense.
* Billups says it was hard to leave Denver. “The worst part is telling your kids Daddy has to leave again.” Again, defense and chemistry are the theme, but he likes the foundation of what the Knicks have.
* Carmelo shows up with LaLa and his son, who is wearing little baby-sized Melo M6′s. He says he chose #7 because his son’s birthday is on the 7th, and 22 (his number in high school) minus 15 (his number in the pros) equals 7.
* I asked ‘Melo if everything was heightened on this night, or at some point did things become normal. He says with the introduction and the crowd reaction, it was far from a normal night, but as things went down to the wire in the fourth, “It came down to just basketball at that point.”
* Are these Knicks a flawed team? Definitely. They’re not deep, they’re not great defensively, they don’t have a lot of rebounders, and they don’t have a lot of spot-up shooters. But they’re good, they’re offensively potent, and they have two of the best 10 players in the League and an All-Star caliber veteran point guard with proven postseason credentials.
This team is — if not an immediate title contender — undeniably legit. And they’re relevant. Their arena will be hopping every night as long as STAT and ‘Melo are there, and this franchise won’t have a problem attracting (affordable) free agents to fill the gaps. This move was the right move. Anyone who still doesn’t think so wasn’t in Madison Square Garden last night.