By Steve Lichtenstein
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Maybe it really does take a village.
During Monday’s regular-season series finale between interborough rivals, Nets interim coach P.J. Carlesimo was naturally concerned with Knicks star forward Carmelo Anthony, who had torched the Nets to the tune of 111 points on 53.5 percent shooting in their three previous meetings. Anthony deployed all his weapons to help the Knicks win two of those, scoring from inside and out.
So Carlesimo figured his best shot in front of a ready-to-rock Madison Square Garden crowd was to show Anthony “different looks.”
Eight of them, by my count. That’s how many different Nets stood in Anthony’s path at various points, taking turns, either by assignment or through switches, trying to minimize the damage from the Knicks’ MVP candidate.
The multitude of bodies thrown in Anthony’s way was the key adjustment that allowed the Nets to knot the series with an 88-85 victory and move them within one game of the Knicks for the Atlantic Division lead.
Anthony did finish with 29 points, but it took him 29 shots to do it. More importantly, the Nets team defense approach helped them clamp down on Anthony when it mattered most, as he was ice cold in the fourth quarter, missing all six attempts.
In the final two minutes, the Nets came up with two huge defensive stops of Anthony to give them the opportunity to ice the game at the free throw line.
With 1:49 left and the Nets holding a one-point lead, Anthony used a Tyson Chandler “pick” (body check would be more precise) on Joe Johnson to drive to the left side of the rim, but Nets center Brook Lopez stayed with Anthony on a switch to stuff the layup attempt.
Then, with the Nets still ahead by one with 20 seconds remaining, the Knicks cleared out the right side for Anthony to isolate on Nets forward Gerald Wallace.
The Nets had acquired Wallace at the trade deadline last year and re-signed him over the summer for this exact scenario. Wallace is well-respected for his defensive chops and has the size to make Anthony’s life difficult.
Except that Wallace had little success derailing Anthony in the earlier matchups. And then there’s the effects from the bruised ribs caused by a fall during a game 10 days ago, which has limited Wallace’s minutes since his return last Wednesday. In fact, Wallace was on the bench for the entire fourth quarter yesterday until he subbed in for the foul-plagued Johnson for this key possession.
But Wallace was up for the task, hanging with Anthony as he dribbled to the baseline until he overshot the rim for an airball.
From the opening tip, Carlesimo had his Nets fixate on Anthony, with their goal to make him perimeter-oriented. Anthony obliged by missing eight of his first 12 attempts, almost all on jump shots.
Wallace was the primary custodian early and in the third quarter, but he only played 26 minutes. I spent much of the game playing, “Where’s Wallace?” — concerned that the streaky Anthony would soon get on track if left to the care of a power forward, like Reggie Evans or Kris Humphries, or a guard, like Keith Bogans or Johnson.
But all the changes seemed to confuse Anthony, who usually feasts on the Nets’ slower big men and eats up Bogans by tossing him aside to score at will. Instead, he seemed to rush his moves, possibly afraid that the Nets would send help.
Anthony did begin to heat up late in the second quarter, so Carlesimo ordered more double teams to get the ball out of his hands. Unfortunately, Anthony was adept at finding cutters at the rim, passing for a season-high seven assists. Anthony closed the third quarter with five points and a nice feed that led to an Amar’e Stoudemire dunk to give the Knicks a 68-65 lead.
But these Nets are not the same team the Knicks blitzed to win the prior Garden contest in a rout only a month ago. Carlesimo has the Nets playing bigger, tougher and smarter at the end of games.
Now we can add the Knicks to the list of contending teams (Thunder, Pacers and Hawks) the Nets defused with sterling fourth quarter defense in the new year.
The Knicks shot 6-for-19 and committed two turnovers in the final frame. By keeping a power forward on the floor (in contrast to departed coach Avery Johnson’s misguided plan to try to match the Knicks three-pointer for three-pointer by going small) Carlesimo knew his club would continue to own the boards (Humphries and Evans combined for 22 rebounds in addition to their 14 points) and limit the Knicks’ possessions. Humphries was especially impressive in shutting out Anthony in the first six minutes of the quarter before Joe Johnson took over the coverage responsibility.
There will be plenty of folks who will excuse the Knicks for having to play without injured point guard Raymond Felton, who has a fractured finger. Then again, Felton was abysmal in the three prior games, shooting a horrific 10-for-46 (21.7 percent) from the floor and 1-for-8 from three-point range.
No, if the teams somehow meet again, this time with their playoff lives at stake, it will still be Anthony whom the Nets must thwart in order to survive. And it will probably take more than one guy to do it.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
Were the Nets that good against Melo, or was the Knicks star just not on his game? Be heard in the comments…