Culture of Hoops

The Complete History of Carmelo Anthony Part 6: Almost a champion

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

Ask yourself, honestly: Would you feel different about Carmelo Anthony the basketball player if he had an NBA championship in his trophy case? If he had managed to lead a team that has never even been to the NBA Finals to their first title, would that change your perception of his potential in the upcoming NBA season and beyond?

With such a feat on his resume, would there have been narratives that the New York Knicks were have been better off without him or that the Denver Nuggets accomplished said improvement by trading him?

How much difference a few seconds makes.

The Denver Nuggets, and Carmelo Anthony especially with his history of struggles against the Los Angeles Lakers, were not expected to win Game 1 of the 2009 Western Conference Finals on the road against one of the greatest players and teams of all time.

The Lakers and their star Kobe Bryant trailed for most of the game though. They were down by double digits in the first quarter behind 16 points from Anthony, who was playing the most focused basketball of his life in the most important game and series of his life.

The Nuggets held the lead coming into the fourth quarter when Kobe Bryant went off … with a little help from the officials. Bryant would score 18 points in the fourth quarter—and a staggering nine from the free-throw line.

Carmelo Anthony, despite being much more aggressive and more present around the basket, shot eight free throws in the entire game.

Although Chauncey Billups had been taking maddening, momentum-killing, and ill-advised jumpers for most of the night, he made a … dammit … “big shot” to put the Nuggets up 99-97 with 1:38 to play.

But then Nene was called for a bogus foul against Pau Gasol who sank two free throws to tie the game. After a bizarre possession that ended in a Chris “Birdman” Anderson missed jump shot (something unlikely to happen in a Phil Jackson offense), Kobe Bryant was sizing up Kenyon Martin in a tie game with 30 seconds on the clock.

As Carmelo Anthony appeared to have stolen the ball in anticipation of a free transition basket that would have put the Nuggets up two and swung all the pressure onto the Lakers, Martin was whistled for a foul on Bryant, sending him to the line instead.

The only problem with this is that Kenyon Martin did not foul Kobe Bryant. You can see the play at the 2:50 mark in the video below.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORvG2DfM3lA[/youtube]

If Carmelo Anthony is the offensive player there, that foul is not called. If LeBron James is defending there, that foul is not called. In a four-point swing (six really if you count the Gasol free throws) the referees put Bryant on the line in a tie game and he did what you would expect him to. And just like that, the Nuggets lead became the Lakers lead.

Still, Denver felt they had a shot considering they had statistically the best clutch player in the NBA, who already had 39 points on 14-of-20 shooting in this game and 30 seconds to let him work.

Except for the part where everything went horribly, horribly wrong.

6’1″ Anthony Carter attempting to inbound a pass over 6’10″ Lamar Odom is a nice segue into a topic I alluded to a moment ago: George Karl.

I like Karl. In fact, he survived the exact same kind of cancer that took my father and has on many occasions he’s been a source of inspiration to me in ways far more profound than anything that happens on hardwood floors.

But Coach Karl is far too often a forgotten figure in the saga of Carmelo Anthony. Remember that Anthony’s first-round record with the Nuggets is the same as Karl’s and that after Anthony’s departure from Denver, the conclusion was reached that GK’s philosophies don’t work in the playoffs and he was dismissed even after winning Coach of the Year.

I am a huge fan of George Karl the person, and I always wanted to see his system succeed because it was so much fun to watch, especially in the regular season, but there is substantial evidence to suggest he is not a coach that brings playoff wins.

On the other end of that spectrum, and on the other side of the court, stood Phil Jackson, arguably the greatest playoff coach of all time.

Carter’s inbound pass was infamously picked off by Trevor Ariza, who created more contact with the intended target, Chauncey Billups, than Martin had against Kobe on his decisive foul. He then sealed the game by getting the ball to Bryant when the Nuggets had to foul.

Two more free throws for Kobe and that was pretty much it.

The ball never found its way into Carmelo Anthony’s hands, and Denver’s star was never given the opportunity to prove the critics wrong. On a play he was not involved in, on failures from Carter, Billups, and Karl, the game was lost. 105-103.

For his part, Billups shot 5-of-13 from the floor. He had the big shot I mentioned and a meaningless desperation three for his only makes from behind the arc. He also uncharacteristically (mayhaps unclutcheristically?) missed three free throws. For a guy who is a 90 percent lifetime free-throw shooter, it was a bad time to lose the touch.

The Lakers beat the Nuggets for the 11th straight time in the postseason. They improved to 7-1 at home in those playoffs, this being the only win decided by single digits, and the chilling fact that Phil Jackson was 42-0 after winning Game 1 of a playoff series was the cherry on top of the we-could-have-stolen-this-one-but-let-it-get-away, punch-in-the-gut cake.

With all that staring them in the face, and with people like me expecting another road loss and the hope to hold serve at home, something amazing happened: The Nuggets outplayed the Lakers in the Staples Center for a second straight game. Only this time they didn’t blow it at the end.

As tough they were stuck in a Bruce Lee film, the first three games of the series were a hall of mirrors.

In Game 2, Melo scored 34 points—his fifth straight 30+ point performance in the playoffs, breaking a Nuggets franchise record set by Alex English—and also hauled in nine rebounds and dished out four assists, leading his team to a 106-103 victory on the road.

This may have been the best overall performance of Carmelo Anthony’s career. In a game that would have been easy to lose after the heartbreak in Game 1, Melo was excellent yet again and the Nuggets stole home court advantage in the Western Conference Finals.

At that moment, Carmelo Anthony had a legitimate claim as the most dangerous basketball player on the planet.

In a way, the win in Game 2 made the loss in Game 1 that much more painful. The Nuggets had home court advantage now, but they could have taken a commanding lead back home and put the Lakers away without ever giving all-time greats Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson time to come up with something.

But more time is what the Lakers had and the hall of mirrors stretched into Game 3, which would again be decided on a failed inbound pass from the boys in sky blue.

How does that happen? I mean, what the hell? I watch a lot of NBA basketball and have only seen a handful of stolen inbound passes in such clutch situations. They are remembered in folklore (Larry Bird) as is common with rare occurrences. Two in one series? Should be winning 3-0 but down 1-2? Because we can’t inbound the damn basketball? 

Okay, now that I’ve replaced the broken keys on my keyboard that fell in the Great War of Me Typing That Last Paragraph, I should be fair and point out that Carmelo Anthony did not set the world on fire in this game.

It would be pretty easy to make the case that he had shouldered the load for quite some time—and it still speaks to his talent that 21 points is a disappointing output—but it wasn’t enough on a night when his counterpart, Kobe Bryant, went for 41 and his team lost 103-97.

This time, the culprit for improper inbounding was Kenyon Martin. The assailant was the same Trevor Ariza and the punishment was the same lack of a chance for Carmelo to work in the clutch.

Imagine if the Boston Red Sox had lost two games in the 1986 World Series because of the ball trickling between someone’s legs and you’ll have an idea of how many Nuggets fans felt at the conclusion of Game 3 in 2009.

Through three games, a reasonable argument could be made that the Nuggets had outplayed the Lakers for most of the minutes.

In fact, as it would turn out, the fourth game would be the first in the series that wasn’t close, with the Nuggets winning 120-101, which added fuel to the fire that the Nuggets were playing the better brand of basketball but that the Lakers were catching all the breaks.

Then Game 5 happened and whatever faith I had left in anything melted to dust and was swept away with the summer rains.

My position on this game is best expressed in an article written by Bill Simmons shortly after it ended.

Even now, visiting the series’ page on ESPN, it is the first “Must See” link with the tagline, “Inconsistent officiating is ruining what could be the best NBA postseason in years.” 

Here is the first half of the penultimate paragraph:

Remember this: The league will change only if it’s embarrassed enough. Web sites tracking official statistics and playoff calls would embarrass them. YouTube clips edited to include every bad call from every playoff game would embarrass them. (For instance, an edited reel of questionable calls from Wednesday night’s Game 5 would be eye-opening, especially Nene’s last two fouls and the 73 times that ‘Melo got hacked without a whistle.

This came just  a few months after former NBA referee Tim Donaghy appeared on 60 Minutes admitting that refs make or miss calls depending on personnel, even singling out then-Denver Nugget Allen Iverson as someone who was abused by such treatment.

With trust at an all-time low, the hardest part was knowing that this is nothing new for Carmelo Anthony.

I have debated the talents of the one they call “Melo” to a myriad of supporters, detractors, and even self-proclaimed haters. In all the critiques of his defense, his willingness to pass, and his leadership skills (among others), I have yet to hear anyone defend the position that Carmelo Anthony doesn’t regularly get a raw deal from the officials.

When the claim is made that he doesn’t get the “superstar” calls that others get—or heck even just mundane everyday calls that most players get—it’s been explained away by referees who claim he is too big and strong to get certain calls, and I’ve frequently heard the point that he doesn’t do himself any favors with his abundance of complaints toward the officials.

But no one rejects the premise.

I also want to make it absolutely clear that I am not blaming the referees for the Denver Nuggets losing this series. But they absolutely handed the Lakers Game 5 just like they did against the Kings in 2002.

I am, however, asking that every person who has used Melo’s playoff record or “lack of playoff success” without context as a critique to remember that you are holding him to the standard of failing to overcome Kobe Bryant, Bryant’s better and more experienced supporting cast, the greatest coach of all time in Phil Jackson, and three incredibly one-sided zebras all for a franchise that has never—ever—been to the NBA Finals.

That is a lot to overcome.

And he almost did it anyway. With all those forces working against him, the Nuggets could not only have easily won this series, but could have easily swept it. I believe that had you merely swapped the teams’ coaches, the Nuggets would have swept the 2009 Western Conference Finals.

This concept is much to the point of this entire series of articles. If you believe that any player deserving high praise should be capable of entirely controlling their results, then I can see how you wouldn’t define Carmelo Anthony as a superstar.

If, however, you believe that circumstance, coaching, front office work, and spatterings of luck play a role, Melo becomes much more clearly a superstar talent who hasn’t had things go his way. What has LeBron James accomplished that Carmelo hasn’t without Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and most importantly, Pat Riley? Beating the Wizards?

Jalen Rose is fond of arguing that the real “Mt. Rushmore” in the NBA isn’t Michael, Magic, Larry, and Wilt but rather Red, Pop, Riley, and Phil. For the past 25 years, there are very few exceptions to one of those four guys walkin’ away with rings. Is it Melo’s fault he wasn’t drafted into the stewardship of one of those guys? Is it his fault that five of his playoff losses in the Western Conference came against either Pop or Phil?

The Lakers were the better team in that series but the Nuggets played the better basketball and Carmelo Anthony was two inbound passes, a couple of key calls (or an entire Game 5 travesty), and/or a little bit of luck away from an NBA championship.

What a difference a few seconds makes.

For those wondering, during that decade, winning the Western Conference Finals was winning the NBA Finals because the Eastern Conference was a joke. I’m open to any argument that those Nuggets wouldn’t have beaten the Orlando Magic in the Finals in a walk, but I haven’t heard it yet.

Carmelo Anthony almost joined a rare cast including Dirk Nowitzki, Hakeem Olajuwon, and the 2004 Detroit Pistons as one of the few players without a “Mt. Rushmore” coach or GM to win an NBA championship. All he did was fail to pull off one of the most unlikely titles in NBA history. Or in other words, what a loser.

Expectation is the root of all heartache.

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