Welcome to King of the Court, our daily celebration of the best performances in basketball from the night that was. We’ll be keeping track of the best player of every night of the NBA season, and tallying the results as we go along.
King of the Court: Carmelo Anthony
For about an hour on Sunday, Carmelo Anthony lulled us. With each swish, the dramatic trade rumors faded. “Don’t mind Phil Jackson’s tweets,” his 3-pointers seemed to say. “It will be OK.” Most blessed of all, if only for one half of basketball, Melo let us forget about James Dolan.
No. 7 — complete with his orange headband, smooth stroke, and a shot so precise that Kawhi Leonard focused on him and him alone on clutch possessions — took over the third quarter against the Spurs. Then he did the same with the fourth, and for the first time in some time, Knicks fans could just focus on beating another team during a Sunday matinee.
Three hours earlier, playing a normal basketball game at Madison Square Garden seemed entirely unrealistic. The Knicks, facing the team with the second-best record in the NBA, were coming off four straight losses, yet somehow that was not the most concerning attribute about the current state of the organization. Two days after banning Charles Oakley from the Garden, Dolan conspicuously decided to honor Latrell Sprewell, Bill Bradley, Herb Williams, Bernard King, Larry Johnson, Vin Baker, Kenny Walker, Gerald Wilkins, and John Wallace before the game.
The PR stunt seemed like more unsheltered pettiness from Dolan and lacked any self-awareness. Sprewell and the Knicks owner haven’t been friendly in 13 years because of Dolan’s comments in 2003 about him not belonging in the Garden, but somehow, today was the day to make amends. Spike Lee, reflecting the heart of many Knicks fans, watched the game courtside in an Oakley jersey. Two days ago, Jackson called another one of his Carmelo tweets “misunderstood,” and Melo said Friday that the situation is even “worse” than it looks from the outside. Basketball, especially against a tough contender near the top of the Western Conference, seemed like the least of New York’s focus.
Considering the turmoil and passive aggression, Carmelo’s first half seemed about right: After five attempts, he had only two jumpers to call his own. Then came relief, and before the Garden knew it, we were being tucked in and read a bedtime story about Vintage Melo. His first 3-pointer of the day sunk in the third quarter. It broke the tie, it broke Charles Barkley’s standing as 25th in all-time scoring, and it broke the buckets floodgates.
Melo erupted in the second half, scoring 21 after his measly four-point performance in the first. With each three, each transition bucket, and each contested jumper, a little more of Carmelo Anthony, the legend, appeared again. The Knicks’ drama can overshadow what Melo used to mean to the league: the early LeBron vs. Carmelo debates, the seven straight All-Star appearances, the conversations about how he still hasn’t won a ring — and the arguments for why he deserves one. Melo is the face of stagnating success killing a phenomenon.
With a little over six minutes left, he drove coast to coast, passing Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge for the finish to push the lead to five.
Melo finished out the game from there: With less than three minutes left in the game, he swished one from behind the arc, then sank a double-teamed turnaround jumper and had another to follow on the next possession. He finished the 94–90 game with 25 points (on 60 percent shooting from deep), seven rebounds, and a little respect on his name. There isn’t another home game in the Garden until after the trade deadline, meaning that this could be Anthony’s final game in New York playing for the Knicks — it’s only appropriate that on Sunday afternoon, among all the mess, it was him assuring the win.
Runner-up: Ricky Rubio
With Zach LaVine out for the season, the bench situation in Minnesota is so dire that signing Lance Stephenson to a 10-day contract seemed necessary. But the Wolves are getting points from an unlikely benefactor: Ricky Rubio. The point guard entered the season seemingly destined for a trade after Minnesota drafted Kris Dunn, who is more athletic and possesses similar skills: Both pass beautifully and shoot painfully. But a week prior to the All-Star break, we find Sir Ricky in a much different scenario. He’s scored 14 or more points in nine of his last 11 games, and finished a 117–89 blowout of the Bulls on Sunday with 17 points on 50 percent shooting, 11 assists, six rebounds, two steals, and a plus-26 rating on the floor.