Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
By JOSH NEWMANSpecial to ZAGSBLOGNEW YORK — Kobe Bryant considers Carmelo Anthony a good friend, and when good friends have as much time together as the two Olympians did this past summer, any number of topics are bound to pop up.
Somewhere between United States Olympic Team training camp in Las Vegas and trips to Washington, D.C., Manchester, Barcelona and finally London over the course of five weeks on their way to Olympic gold, the topic between the two turned to Anthony’s 2011-12 season, which was more frustrating and exasperating than anything.
Under the bright lights and intense scrutiny of New York, Anthony was labeled selfish and, despite being one of the premier scorers of this generation, was thought to even be expendable at one point. Of course, all of this coincided with Jeremy Lin and the rise of ‘Linsanity.’
Anthony missed seven games and most of an eighth between Feb. 6-19 of last season with a groin injury, just as Lin was rising to prominence and helping to save a season that was heading nowhere. Upon his return Feb. 20, the Knicks proceeded to lose eight of their next 10 games, prompting people to wonder if Anthony was the problem.
The way Bryant told the story after the Knicks moved to an Eastern Conference-best 17-5 following a 116-107 win at Madison Square Garden Thursday night, everything about last season took a toll on Anthony.
“We talked when we were together for the Olympic team and I think last year was very tough for him because he was criticized a lot for shooting and for playing the way he likes to play,” Bryant said. “Then, the whole ‘Linsanity’ thing happened and everybody said, ‘Well, are they better without Melo’ and all this nonsense.”
Throughout his return in February and before Lin’s season came to an end thanks to a slightly torn left meniscus on March 24, Anthony’s numbers were down. Between his return from the groin injury Feb. 20 and Lin’s last game on March 24, Anthony shot 46.5 percent from the floor, but was averaging just 17.5 points per game, which is over seven points below his career average.
No stranger to intense scrutiny playing in a large media market his entire career, Bryant offered up some advice to his friend. The advice probably wasn’t anything Anthony didn’t know he already had to do, but it acted more as shock therapy for a tremendous players whose psyche was in need of a little mending.
“You guys (the media) really put the hammer on him and as a result, he kind of got a little gun-shy and a little self-conscious about things and I just asked him, ‘What the hell are you doing? To hell with them. You’ve got to do what you do best,'” Bryant said. “I think the organization put pieces around him that allowed him to do that. Now you guys all celebrate him for doing what he’s always done. It’s funny, God bless you guys.”
Anthony took Bryant’s advice and after shredding everyone in London in more of a complementary role, he has done much of the same to the NBA in his usual spot as a go-to guy.
After Thursday night’s 22-minute, injury-shortened 30-point outburst, Anthony is averaging 27.9 points per game, the Knicks have the best record in the Eastern Conference and Anthony has played every bit the part of true team leader and legitimate MVP candidate that he always seemed destined to be.
In the first quarter alone on Thursday, Anthony scored 22 points and shot 8-for-9 to take all the air out of the Lakers in Mike D’Antoni‘s return to Madison Square Garden.
Anthony’s 30 points marked his third straight 30-point game since returning on Sunday from a lacerated left middle finger, for which he missed two games.
“Melo was sensational to start the game,” Bryant said. “He is just playing the way he has always played throughout his career. I think he is just in an environment where they celebrate that and encourage that from him because that’s who he is. He’s just having a sensational season.”
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