NEW YORK (Reuters) - A gifted scorer, Carmelo Anthony has always had the talent to put the ball in the basket but rarely has he been able to put his team deep into the playoffs.
The pressure is on the Knicks forward with the bruising inside moves and delicate outside touch to prove himself in the postseason and help erase more than a decade of playoff failures for New York.
“It seems like we’re starting off with a clean plate right now,” Anthony, hungry for a taste of playoff success, told reporters before the opening of second-seeded New York’s first-round series against seventh seed Boston Celtics.
Anthony is off to a great start, scoring 36 points in the opener and 34 points in New York’s 87-71 Game Two win that gave the Knicks a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
But that is just a start, and despite sporting a new Olympic gold medal and his first NBA scoring title (28.7 points average) on his resume, Anthony is challenged to show he can lift his team and alter a reputation as a high-scoring playoff bust.
Coming into this postseason, Anthony’s playoff record with the Knicks was 1-8 after two postseason trips with New York, following a 16-30 postseason mark with the Denver Nuggets.
The Knicks, who have not won a title in 40 years, have not moved past the first round in 13 years. Anthony has advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs only once in nine tries.
“He’s had this breakout year, but when the playoffs come, he’s going to have to raise his level,” Walt Frazier, point guard for New York’s last NBA title team in 1973, told the Daily News.
“He’ll have new expectations he’s going to have to meet. Can he handle the pressure?”
Second-year guard Iman Shumpert said this is a new Anthony, and that a summer pursuing Olympic gold in London had changed him.
”He’s definitely our leader,“ Shumpert told Reuters in the Knicks locker room before Game Two against Boston. ”I think he’s done a ton more talking this year ... in the locker room, on the court and especially on defense.
”I think he’s just done a great job, an incredible job lifting us and make sure we play the same way all year.
“Definitely a difference between last year and this year,” added Shumpert, saying Anthony seemed more confident.
“Any time we find ourselves about to get rattled he sort of just calms everybody down. I think a lot of that comes from him just putting the work in this summer and coming in after that gold medal on a roll already.”
Following a rousing Olympics in which Anthony committed to playing tough defense alongside LeBron James against taller opponents on an undersized U.S. team, the Knicks forward came to the new NBA campaign in great shape and with a fierce attitude.
”Whatever we need him to do,“ Shumpert said. ”This year he’s been asked to guard a lot of five-men (centers) because sometimes we play small. He hasn’t complained. Whatever he has to do he just goes and do it.
“He’s watching a ton of film. He’s been a flat-out leader. I think it’s contagious,” he added, pointing to J.R. Smith, who on Tuesday was presented the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award.
“J.R. has been a bigger leader. The focus in the locker room from last year to this year has been night and day.”
For all his personal success, Anthony has languished behind illustrious fellow members of the top of the 2003 NBA Draft.
James, the No. 1 draft pick of 2003, was the man with the pressure turned up ultra high last season.
“King” James, believed to be overdue for an NBA title, got that monkey off his back with a run to the crown with fellow members of the class of 2003 Chris Bosh (No. 4) and Dwyane Wade (No. 5) joining him on the Miami Heat.
Anthony, selected No. 3 in 2003 after winning the U.S. college title as a freshman with Syracuse, is still chasing the NBA dream for New York after being swept by Boston in the first round in 2011 after joining the Knicks in a big trade with Denver, and losing in five to Miami last year.
“No, it don‘t, it don‘t,” the Brooklyn-born Anthony, a six-time NBA All-Star, told reporters when asked whether the playoffs were putting added pressure on him.
No amount of denial, however, can fill the empty plate.
Only a playoff run to the Eastern Conference finals and a likely date with the Miami Heat will satisfy Madison Square Garden crowds that lavish Anthony with chants of “MVP, MVP, MVP.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford