Carmelo Anthony believes this may have been his finest NBA season.
"Yeah, I would say that. I would say that by far," he said. "Just as far as the team success, how I've been playing, how much fun it's been for myself, for everybody just as a whole, I would say it's one of my better seasons."
With more than 50 wins for the New York Knicks and more than 27 points per game for himself, the numbers back him up. The Knicks won a division title, and Anthony will add the scoring title after the regular season ends Wednesday.
Then the real work will begin.
The Knicks will be expected to win a playoff series, maybe even two. They traded away nearly every important player from a team on the rise to get Anthony from Denver two years ago, and they have one postseason victory to show for it, not what the Knicks or Anthony had in mind.
On Saturday, the Boston Celtics will come to New York, where they finished off a sweep of Anthony and the Knicks in 2011, back when critics who felt the Knicks gave up too much to acquire the All-Star forward needed only point at the players who remained around him to make their case as the season ended with a whimper.
Now Anthony is ready to make some noise.
"It's a big playoff series," he said. "I did envision us being at the top, one or two in the Eastern Conference. I did envision us winning our division eventually, but right now this playoff series is very important for myself, it's very important for us as a team, as a city, as an organization. I mean, we're looking forward to this series."
Long regarded as one of the league's most dynamic scorers, Anthony has finally become something more, on the court and in the locker room.
"His shotmaking is off the charts, but he's making the right plays, too," Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. "And he's playing winning basketball, and that's a big reason why they're doing what they're doing."
Donnie Walsh always believed Anthony could.
Walsh was the Knicks president in 2011, having gotten them out from under years of bad financial decisions and assembled a playoff contender. Anthony was to become a free agent that summer and told the Nuggets he wanted to leave, and the Knicks would've had room to sign him. But with the Nets trying hard to get him via trade, the Knicks didn't want to risk waiting.
The package it took to get him was more than Walsh would've liked — Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton and Timofey Mozgov were four of their top six players — but a necessary one for an elite player in his prime.
"That was the only reason that we would give up the amount, the kind of players that we did," said Walsh, who has since returned to Indiana as the Pacers' president. "This guy is a guy you're not going to get, or you can't count on getting, so if you had the chance to get him, you had to get him."
But it appeared they got the Anthony who was into scoring but not necessarily winning. Especially when Amare Stoudemire was hurt, it was clear Anthony didn't trust the teammates around him, and if the choices were to take a contested shot or give it to someone who might miss an open one, Anthony was putting it up. Former coach Mike D'Antoni asked Anthony to alter his game last season when the Knicks were surging behind Jeremy Lin, and Anthony either couldn't or wouldn't.
"If you can score the way he does and you don't have guys on the team that you're sure can make the shot, then you're probably going to shoot it," Walsh said.
That wasn't good enough for Mike Woodson.
He made demands of Anthony that D'Antoni hadn't when he took over as Knicks coach in March 2012. Anthony would be held accountable for everything from his decision-making to the condition of his body, and both have remained solid.
"He met the challenge, I thought, and it's been that way all season this year," Woodson said. "I mean, Melo's played big and I mean we're going to continue to need him to play big in terms of where we're trying to get to."
New York won 15 of 16 late in the season to take its first Atlantic Division title since 1994. With Anthony playing out of his normal position as a power forward, the Knicks have surrounded him with more shooters and built the league's most dangerous 3-point offense while also assembling a top-10 defense.
"His overall game is so much better than it was a year ago in terms of playing both ends, and rebounding and giving up the ball when he's double-teamed and still scoring," Woodson said.
"I just think his game has just grown in every area and his teammates have benefited from it and he's benefiting from it, too, because it goes both ways I think."
Anthony had a franchise-record six straight 35-point games down the stretch, blowing past Kevin Durant by raising his average to 28.7 points and positioning himself to become the first Knick since newly elected Hall of Famer Bernard King in 1984-85 to win the scoring title. He's taking and making better shots, hitting nearly 56 percent while averaging 38.6 points and 10.6 rebounds in a seven-game stretch before scoring 25 in only three quarters against the Pacers on Sunday.
The No. 2 seed in the East, the Knicks beat Miami three times and are perhaps the best hope of giving the Heat a challenge in the playoffs. Anthony has won the conference's last two player of the week awards and seems likely to end LeBron James' season-long run as East player of the month, but only a title will get Anthony into his Olympic teammate's class.
"I've said that I feel Melo's going to win a championship someday," Denver coach George Karl said earlier this season. "He's going to figure out that scoreboard numbers and stat sheets aren't important. It's the team scoreboard and intangibles of the game that make winners champions."
Maybe Anthony is finally on the way there.
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