Carmelo Anthony made his return from a lacerated left middle finger as the New York Knicks welcomed the Denver Nuggets to Madison Square Garden, and it all seemed to work out for the Knicks, who won 112-106.
Judging by the stat line that Carmelo had, it's easy to look at it and think that he had a really good game.
Carmelo walked away from this one with a robust 34 points on a modest 10-24 shooting, 3-8 from the three-point line with six rebounds, an assist and two steals.
It all looks pretty rosy, and for the most part it wasn't a terrible game by Anthony. But there's no way you could say he had a great game if you watched the game. A big part of what he was able to do was completely taken out of the hand of the defense.
Anthony was able to get to the line for 16 free throws (he made 11 of them) throughout the night, many of which came in the first half and allowed him to build up that scoring number when he was shooting at a rate of around 25 percent.
He was slow getting into rhythm initially, and it seemed like a little nudge here and there from the Nuggets bailed him out and let him get to the free-throw line.
There was a point in the second quarter when he actually had more free throws than Denver's entire team.
Melo has ten free throws. The Nuggets have 8.
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) December 10, 2012
It's not to sound like a naysayer, but Carmelo was helped out immensely by the referees early on in this game. That being said, there are other parts of his game that were not slowed down at all by the two-game layoff.
So let's break it down a bit and really take a look at how he did tonight.
Carmelo obviously started out slow from the floor, which is more or less a given when you look at his shooting numbers. However, that didn't become the narrative of the game.
Anthony ended up going just 5-17 in the first three quarters, including a third quarter that saw him make just two of his eight shots, and get blocked twice.
When the Knicks took him out they were down 83-78, they put him back in up 91-88 and he decided it was time to turn on the afterburners.
He went on to have a 5-7 fourth quarter that included a big three-pointer to push the lead to seven points with five minutes to go.
It wasn't an amazing performance, but he was on when they needed him to be on.
As has been the tendency this season, Carmelo continued to show why he's a much improved player compared to last season; he's just playing harder.
Defensively he continued to play guys hard, fight through screens rather than lazily sagging off and chase after loose balls.
Looking at the glamour stats, Carmelo came away with two steals, one of which came in the third quarter when the Knicks looked like they were losing it.
After being criticized in the past for settling for jumpers too much, it seems like he's finally settled into a place where he's comfortable using every possible aspect of his game.
Even when he was struggling he wasn't discouraged. He continued to mix up drives to the rim and shots in the paint with long jumpers and high-post work. All the while he looked for any kind of contact—he seemed to realize that his shots just weren't falling.
Carmelo wasn't the most efficient shooter tonight, but at least he wasn't getting down in the dumps and just jacking up shots. Plus, most of the shots he took were shots he would have taken on any other night.
This is the reason why Anthony, even on his bad nights, is capable of looking like an MVP candidate.
As far as 34-point performances go, this wasn't one of the memorable ones. He did okay from the three-point line and was good enough at hitting free throws, it just seemed like something was still a bit off.
It didn't really seem like the bandage on his left hand bothered him, although he did have a few attempts from the right side of the basket with his right hand that seemed like they would be more naturally shot as a lefty.
He's not going to let this injury slow him down, obviously, as he and the Knicks played against a high-paced offensive team and didn't miss a beat when it came time to keep up.
This is a magnificent sign for the Knicks and their fans, as Carmelo seemed to show us tonight that he can turn a bad game into a pretty good one if need be.