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Anthony delivers in the spotlight

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By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / April 20, 2011

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Overshadowed in Denver, where the Nuggets are buried in the sports landscape behind the Broncos’ 15-year quest to find a replacement for John Elway and perhaps even Colorado’s move to the Pac-12, Carmelo Anthony passively-aggressively clamored to leave the Rocky Mountains for this opportunity.

Anthony watched for years as draft contemporaries Dwyane Wade and LeBron James dazzled national television audiences with scintillating postseason performances, cementing their reputations as extraordinary players, the types who can single-handedly carry teams to victories under improbable circumstances.

In last night’s 96-93 loss to the Celtics at TD Garden, Anthony was one play from accomplishing that feat, putting himself in a different class, gaining a newfound respect among observers and fans still uncertain about his ability to lead.

With Chauncey Billups out with a strained left knee and Amar’e Stoudemire unable to run without pain because of back spasms sustained before the game, Anthony was on his own to represent a nation of Knicks faithful seeking long-lost respectability.

The Knicks took a step in Game 1, fighting the Celtics down to the controversial final seconds before losing on a Ray Allen 3-pointer and mass confusion on the final play. With all expectations that they would get blown out without two of their primary contributors, the Knicks fought the Celtics again behind Anthony’s brilliance.

He finished with a career playoff high of 42 points to go along with 17 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 blocks, showing a legion of doubters his ability to thrive under pressure. Those who believed Anthony was just an NBA pretty boy, a three-quarter player who could do nothing but rack up points under the dim lights of the Northwest Division, are re-thinking those notions.

“[Amar’e] came to me and was like, ‘Man, my back is messed up.’ I was like, ‘Just ride it out with me, fight it out with me,’ ’’ Anthony said. “I came down on a pick-and-roll one time, I got in the paint and I swung it to him and I seen him just grab his back. That was the play, it was just like, ‘Damn another one of our guys are gone.’ Mike [D’Antoni] came up to me in a timeout and was like, ‘Amar’e is done, we need you to carry us tonight.’ My thing was to just go out there, not try to carry the team by scoring the basketball, but just doing everything.’’

Anthony scored 45 percent of his team’s points, grabbed 32 percent of his team’s rebounds, and made half of his team’s 3-pointers. Yet, Anthony will get flak for the play he didn’t make. He passed on forcing a shot against a double team in the waning seconds and put faith in teammate Jared Jeffries, who had made his most significant play since his University of Indiana days with a streaking layup to put the Knicks ahead, 93-92, with 19.3 seconds left.

Anthony flipped a pass under the basket to Jeffries, who tried passing to the streaking Bill Walker but Kevin Garnett got his hands on the ball, dived for the rock and called a timeout, saving the game.

His legs rubbery, his wind empty, an exhausted Anthony was unable to catch Delonte West for an intentional foul until only 0.6 seconds were left in the game.

Afterward the Knicks were gleeful. They pushed the Celtics to the brink without two top players. Anthony appeared as if an anvil-sized weight of doubt had been lifted from his shoulders. He produced on the big stage, thriving after a difficult 5-for-18 performance Sunday.

“It was fun, for the most part,’’ he said. “We were out there fighting, man. My teammates stuck with me, I had confidence in them. It was just a battle. It came down to a couple of plays down the stretch, but for the most part throughout the whole game I think we played fantastic, man. Defensively we did, offensively I kind of had it going tonight.

“I made other guys better, they felt confident out there when they got the ball to make something happen. KG hit a tough shot over Jared, a contested shot. For the most part we played great tonight. We can’t hang our heads over something like this. We’ve got to take this and build on it going back home.’’

The Knicks realize this game had far-reaching implications, with repercussions beyond this series. They may lose to the Celtics, but they will enter next season with two premiere players — Anthony and Stoudemire — capable of dominating on the grandest stage. Few NBA teams can make that claim.

Knicks fans aren’t expecting an NBA Finals run with this team. The players were thrown together too late in the regular season, with weaknesses that need to be addressed. But this postseason is about respect for New York basketball. The Knicks are using this series as a chance to establish themselves once again as a rival to the Celtics and as a nemesis to the rest of the league.

Anthony didn’t pull out the victory with his heroics, but he gained a throng of fans. Knicks fans no longer have to lament over bloated payrolls and underachieving players. Last night they gave a sample of their future.

“He’s a great player and a lot is expected of him, especially coming to New York,’’ Walker said. “I think he’ll be fine. He’s going out there and playing great. He had a tough [Game 1] but shook it off and promised to be better and that’s what he did. We’ve just got to keep building on that as a team.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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