NEW YORK — Overrated ball hog.
This is Carmelo Anthony. He doesn’t seem to be a bad guy. He is not the devil. He’s probably going to shoot the Knicks past the Celtics in the first round of these NBA playoffs.
But he’s not going to be an NBA champion. He’s not one of the all-time greats. He appears to be incapable of doing anything to help his team unless he has the ball in his hands.
Who are the best NBA players who never passed the basketball? Larry Bird and Magic Johnson made teammates better with their passing skills. LeBron James is a great passer. Even Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant gave it up once in a while. Wilt Chamberlain — who averaged 50 points a game in a season — managed to lead the league in assists when he decided he’d done everything else. Oscar Robertson averaged a triple-double over a full season. Tiny Archibald led the league in scoring and assists in the same season.
Not Melo. He plays like an only child. He cannot share the ball. He knows he’s better than all of his teammates and he plays like a man intent on doing it all by himself. He either has the basketball, or he’s demanding the basketball. The Knicks’ offense is Melo pounding, and four guys standing around watching.
Melo’s 36-point, one-assist performance in Saturday’s 85-78 Game 1 tractor-pull/victory over the Celtics was a perfect demonstration of Anthony’s amazing skills and his eternal limitations. He burst from the gate, draining his first four shots. Then he missed 15 of 20 shots. Then he came back, making four of his last five. He hoisted 29 shots and didn’t pass for a basket until he fired a bullet to Kenyon Martin in the final minute of play.
This is one of the reasons Anthony’s teams have lost in the first round of the playoffs in eight of the nine times he has been in the postseason. Anthony led the NBA in scoring average this season with 28.7 points per game, while averaging a career-low 2.6 assists. Saturday he had one assist for every 29 shots and missed 16 shots.
In many ways, this makes him the perfect face of the 2012-13 Knicks. There is a sense of desperation about this New York basketball team. Today’s Knicks have a lot of veterans and played well at the end of this regular season. It was the Knicks’ best regular season in a decade and a half. The Knicks play in a fabled arena and have fans who know basketball and love the game. But the Knicks haven’t won a playoff series since 2000.
They know they should beat the Celtics — who have lost (including Saturday) 7 of 10 and 12 of their last 18 games.
Melo’s one-on-one style infects his teammates and it makes these Knicks the antithesis of the 1970s Knicks teams, which featured moving without the ball, pick-and-rolls, backdoor cuts, and hitting the open man. It’s hard to imagine Anthony blending with Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, and Willis Reed. The 1970s Knicks were the Supremes. Today’s Knicks are Diana Ross and the Supremes.
And Melo is the Supreme Diva.
The Celtics bumped him out of his rhythm after his early flurry in Game 1, but coach Doc Rivers was taking no bows for superior defense on Anthony.
“He made three shots that only him, and Paul [Pierce], maybe you could name 10 guys who could make those shots,’’ Rivers said Sunday at the Celtics’ swank hotel in New York. (The Celtics are sharing hotel space with the Chicago Bulls, who were spanked by the Nets Saturday night.)
“He’ll probably continue to make those. The ones we need to take away are the two threes he got on offensive rebounds. He got another one off a loose ball when they swung it out to him. Those are the ones that hurt. He had one in the fourth when Jeff [Green] loaded to the ball and he lost sight of Carmelo and Carmelo got the little elbow shot. You can see the shots that he got that you don’t want him to have, and you can see the shots that he made where you tip your hat to him and say, ‘That’s why you’re Carmelo Anthony.’ ’’
Everybody in New York tips their cap to Melo. For a guy who’s never won anything in the pros — playing for a franchise that hasn’t won a championship since 1973 — Anthony is wildly popular. He’s cooperative with the media and has demonstrated proper respect toward former Knicks great Bernard King — the best player on the Knicks team that pushed Larry Bird’s championship Celtics to seven games in a conference semifinal series in 1984.
“Boston knows Melo and knows he is not going anywhere,’’ Knicks coach Mike Woodson said. “They are going to be making it as tough as possible for him to score the ball. When we got into a tough stretch, he made the plays we needed him to make. That’s what the great ones do.”
The true greats win championships. The overrated ball hogs do not.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.