Commentary

And now the hard part ...

Wednesday was a strong first step, but Melo's Knicks have plenty of work still ahead

Updated: February 25, 2011, 7:41 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- All that flattery flowing from Carmelo Anthony for months about how badly he wanted to come to New York and all that giddy talk that he'll hasten the Knicks revival Amare Stoudemire started this season was great in theory as the trade talks for Anthony rattled on month after month.

But once their long-sought partnership was finally a reality Wednesday night, you got the strong feeling from Anthony as he navigated his way through his introductory news conference -- and later, his first game as a Knick -- that he acutely understands the obvious: Now the hard part begins.

Even if Anthony didn't get that, standing off in the wings and talking about that very subject was Knicks great Walt Frazier, who showed up at the Garden on Wednesday night in full "Clyde" mode, wearing a faux tiger jacket with matching tiger-striped shoes, and talking about how he knows the expectations and challenges Anthony and Stoudemire now are up against better than most.

Decades ago, Frazier and Earl Monroe were in Anthony and Stoudemire's position. Then, as now, it was a trade that brought the two superstars together with the Knicks amid a lot of debates about how well it might work.

"But the difference for us, even more than these guys, is people didn't even give us a chance," Frazier said before the game. "People just said it wouldn't work, period. They said we'd need two basketballs to get along."

Egos were supposed to be the problem with Frazier and Monroe. Stoudemire and Anthony already are close friends, so that isn't the concern with them. Their similar stature as scorers first, second and third is supposed to be a worry if the Knicks don't fill in a few more pieces around them.

"We already know there's not going to be a lot of dishing and swishing with these two guys," Frazier said with a laugh. "Someone just told me Carmelo scored 50 points in a game once and didn't have one assist. That's hard to do.

[+] EnlargeCarmelo Anthony
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesCarmelo Anthony capped an eventful day with 27 points and 10 rebounds in a winning effort against the Bucks.

"To me, the epitome of a superstar is how they raise the level of the other guys around them," Frazier added. "So they're going to have to play some defense and rebound, too. And there's going to be more pressure on the coach now to do that, too."

Frazier is right about all of that, of course. You just couldn't sell any of those worries to the Garden crowd that welcomed Anthony with a loud, 15-second ovation when his name was called first during introductions before the Knicks' 114-108 win over Milwaukee on Wednesday night.

The Garden always has known how to put on a show, and the plan for Anthony's opening night rollout was no exception. Just before game time, with the crowd already standing and buzzing with anticipation, the lights suddenly were cut off in the arena. Then some music started playing, and a series of one-sentence quotes -- all of them taken from things Anthony had actually said -- ran across the scoreboard at Madison Square Garden a line at a time like the news zipper on one of the electronic billboards in Times Square: "Did you think it would happen?" ... "I wanted to be Bernard King" ... and then, the line that brought the loudest roars of all ... "I'm coming home."

Anthony -- who was born in Brooklyn and left Syracuse University for the NBA after leading the Orange to a national championship as a 19-year-old freshman -- was very good Wednesday night despite having just one, brief pregame walk-through to get acquainted with his new teammates and Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni's system.

He finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds. But what was more notable for the Knicks was that 11 of his points came in the fourth quarter, when the Bucks wouldn't go away and Stoudemire was fighting foul trouble.

"It's a great moment for me," Anthony said afterward, referring to the whole night. "The fans were great. I was a little excited to get the game going."

But now that it's over and he's finally a Knick?

"I love it, I love it," he said.

Anthony, Stoudemire and newly acquired point guard Chauncey Billups (21 points in an equally promising debut) have only 27 games left in the regular season to find some chemistry and make sure the Knicks (29-26) hang on to a playoff spot.

If they mesh quickly and can add a first-round playoff upset, this will be considered a season in which the Knicks made great strides. The hopes going into next season will be off the charts.

But on the one night when even the craziest optimism is usually forgiven, it was conspicuous that Anthony didn't once mention bringing a title to New York, unlike Stoudemire, who talks all the time about making the Knicks a "championship-caliber team."

Maybe that was just Anthony being smart, given the expectations he's walking into. Or maybe that was an early indication of the roles we can expect Anthony and Stoudemire to fill going forward. Stoudemire might very well continue to be the more out-front leader, the unabashedly bigger dreamer and talker. And Anthony, for perhaps the first time in his big-time basketball career, will be happy to have a teammate who is his near equal to share all of those responsibilities.

Anthony did volunteer that he's looking forward to nights when "I'll just ride [Stoudemire's] coattails," same as Frazier admitted he sometimes did with Monroe.

"On the nights Earl was hot, I'd just keep giving him the ball," Frazier said. "These guys are both smart. They'll figure that out, too."

[+] EnlargeCarmelo Anthony
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesAnthony was all smiles during his introductory news conference at the Garden.

The only downbeat part of the night happened at Anthony's pregame news conference. Knicks owner James Dolan quickly got past the pleasantries of welcoming the newest Knicks and graciously thanking all the players who just got shipped out, then took off on a naked bootleg and launched into a scolding of the large media corps that turned out for Anthony's debut.

Reading from prepared remarks, Dolan spent a few minutes chiding anyone who thought the Knicks' front office wasn't a united team during its chase of Anthony. He praised general manager Donnie Walsh and promised they'd talk soon about a contract extension. Then he added that while ex-Knicks executive Isiah Thomas is a good personal friend, any suggestion that Thomas interfered with Walsh or had anything to do with obtaining Anthony was, Dolan said, "simply untrue and a fiction in someone's mind."

Leave it to Dolan to turn a day that should have been all happiness and lightness -- and all about celebrating what a coup Anthony and Billups' arrival was -- into a self-centered digression. Dolan could have justifiably grabbed for a great share of the credit in getting Anthony to New York. Instead, he wasted time for some personal grievances while his two newest stars, Anthony and Billups, sat there with smiles plastered on their faces, waiting out Dolan's odd digression.

If Anthony or Billups wondered even a little what dysfunction they'd just gotten themselves into, you couldn't have blamed them.

But any doubts probably evaporated once they took the court a little more than two hours later to that wall of happy sound that greeted them before and during the game.

For one night, anyway, it was a validation of Anthony and Stoudemire's wishes to finally play together, and Anthony's dogged staredown with Denver to make it happen.

Now let's see what other outlandish dreams Anthony and Stoudemire can make come true.

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