Carmelo Anthony returned to the New York Knicks lineup just in time to face the only other NBA team he's ever played for, and his Knicks needed every one of his 34 points to knock off the visiting Denver Nuggets by a score of 112-106 Sunday night.
Melo shrugged off a slow start before closing out the game in true superstar fashion. His 11 fourth-quarter points keyed a cold-shooting Knicks team, pushing them to a 10-point fourth-quarter advantage that swung the game.
Anthony got plenty of gritty help from Tyson Chandler, who finished with 15 points and 12 boards, but the rest of the team's key contributors struggled mightily in the scoring department.
The excitement of the return of the Knicks star has to be tempered with the reality that New York managed to steal a game in which it allowed the Nuggets to shoot over 55 percent from the field. After a terrific start to the season, the Knicks defense is starting to come back to earth.
Denver got plenty of easy transition buckets, and the Knicks only managed to walk out of Madison Square Garden with a victory because of Anthony's brilliance and their continued hot three-point shooting.
Now that everyone in New York has had a chance to exhale and enjoy a hard-fought Knicks win, let's get to the good stuff. Here are the grades for every key Knick.
Raymond Felton, New York Knicks: C
Raymond Felton picked up against the Nuggets where he left off against the Bulls Saturday night, meaning he took plenty of shots but made few. Despite finishing just 4-of-15 (after the 9-for-30 performance against Chicago), Felton did make positive contributions on offense.
The Knicks point guard inflicted most of his damage as a set-up artist, tossing a handful of picturesque lobs to the happy-to-finish Tyson Chandler to finish with six assists.
Though he wasn't alone in his defensive struggles, Felton's difficulty in containing Ty Lawson was a key reason for Denver's massive advantage in transition. In addition to his inability to stick with Lawson on the break, Felton struggled to stay in front of Lawson in half-court sets.
There may not be a player in the league who's capable of keeping Lawson out of the paint, but on a night when Felton provided little of his own offense, his defensive shortcomings were especially problematic for the Knicks.
On the whole, his playmaking helped offset some rough shooting and spotty defense.
Jason Kidd, New York Knicks: A-
At this point, we should all be well aware that Jason Kidd's performances can't be judged by the box score. That sounds strange, given that Kidd's numbers against Denver actually looked pretty darn good, but the Knicks combo guard was actually even more valuable to his team than his 17 points and seven assists would seem to indicate.
The wily vet made his biggest contributions in a number of subtle ways.
He duped JaVale McGee into fouling him on a hopeless jumper with the shot clock running out, he swung the ball to open shooters on the perimeter, and he played intelligent defense on every Nugget from Ty Lawson to Andre Iguodala.
More important than all that, Kidd picked his spots brilliantly, taking and making key three-pointers when the Knicks were struggling to hold off the Nuggets in the second half.
Down the stretch, Kidd conducted the offense wisely and even picked up a critical steal and assist that tied the game. His heady play was very nearly as important to the Knicks victory as Carmelo's late-game heroics.
This was vintage Kidd.
Ronnie Brewer, New York Knicks: B-
Nobody expects Ronnie Brewer to score, but after back-to-back goose eggs in his last two contests, it was starting to feel like he might never get on the board again. Fortunately, he snapped the drought with a corner three in the first quarter.
But that was just about all we'd hear from Brewer on the offensive end.
As usual, the small forward expended most of his energy chasing around the opponent's best wing player. In this instance, that meant he was firmly attached to the jersey of Andre Iguodala. Brewer did an admirable job on D, holding Iggy to 15 points while snatching four steals in just 26 minutes.
There's no question that Brewer has value to the Knicks—a legitimate defensive stopper is a necessity on any real championship contender—but at the very least, he's got to make the occasional open look from long range. He made just 1-of-4 Sunday night and his three-point percentage is in a nosedive toward his career mark of 26 percent.
Brewer is what he is: a limited player with elite defensive skills. New York doesn't need more than that from him now, but it might in the postseason.
Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks: A-
The lacerated finger that kept Carmelo Anthony out of the lineup is on his non-shooting hand, but you wouldn't have known that from watching his performance in the early going against the Nuggets.
Melo clearly struggled with his shot in the first half, hitting just three field goals in the first 24 minutes. Fortunately for the Knicks, Anthony scrapped the notion of shooting jumpers in the early going and focused on getting to the line. On the night, No. 7 hit 11-of-16 from the line.
Credit Anthony for finding a way to score when his jumper wasn't falling early, and credit him even more for the confidence he showed in the waning minutes of the game. Despite his struggles, Melo never shied away from big shots, and his pair of fourth-quarter threes helped push the Knicks ahead for good.
Melo didn't have a particularly efficient night, but he gave the Knicks the star they needed. There was no question who would be taking key shots down the stretch, and that certainty helped the rest of the Knicks settle more comfortably into their roles.
Anthony finished with 34 points and six rebounds on 10-of-24 shooting.
Overall, Carmelo's return from a two-game layoff couldn't have gone better. He beat his old team and did it by leading the offensive charge himself. The Knicks definitely have their alpha dog back.
Tyson Chandler, New York Knicks: A
Carmelo Anthony and Raymond Felton both had messy performances from the field, but Tyson Chandler was there to clean up. The Knicks center continued his brilliant play of late by putting up 15 points on 7-of-8 shooting.
But it was his beastly work on the glass that set his night apart.
In several key sequences, Chandler snatched offensive rebounds on the Knicks' missed perimeter looks, creating extra possessions and keeping New York in it when its shooters had gone cold. Chandler had six offensive boards on the night.
The big man came into the game as the league leader in field-goal percentage, and his lob-filled 7-of-8 shooting performance only increased his lead in the category.
Despite logging 37 minutes as the Knicks' primary interior defender against a rugged Bulls team the night before, Chandler followed up his terrific 14-point, 18-rebound performance in Chicago with another gem against the Nuggets.
Next to Anthony, the man in the middle is undoubtedly the Knicks' most important player for the long haul. Against the Nuggets, he was their best.
J.R. Smith, New York Knicks: C
J.R. Smith wasn't able to shake himself out of the slump that saw him hit just 14-of-45 shots over his previous three games (including 6-of-25 from three). Smith put up 15 points on 5-of-19 shooting against the Nuggets, continuing his recent slide.
As often as Smith fired away, you'd have thought he forgot Carmelo Anthony was actually back in the lineup. In his 32 minutes, Smith's 19 attempts were more than every Knick outside of Melo.
At this point, the Knicks are comfortable with the unpredictability of Smith's scoring performances, especially when he contributes in other ways. His nine rebounds were second only to Tyson Chandler's 11 and he did hit a critical three in the fourth quarter.
Overall, Smith did what he always seems to do: He took some bad shots, but made a couple of big ones. New York can live with that.
With Rasheed Wallace sidelined by a sore foot, it was more critical than usual for the Knicks to get solid contributions from Steve Novak and the rest of the bench against a Nuggets team that seemed intent on pushing the pace.
Outside of J.R. Smith, the Knicks' only other significant bench production came from sharpshooter Steve Novak.
New York's premier marksman hit a pair of threes in the early part of the fourth quarter, generating a personal mini-run of six points that helped pull the Knicks back from an eight-point deficit. The buckets came at a key time in the game and provided a critical boost before Anthony checked in to take over the contest.
The Knicks have plenty of depth, and the bench will only look better when Marcus Camby and Iman Shumpert are healthy enough to lend a hand. Even now, New York's short bench has been a major part of the team's success this season.