New York surrendered a massive lead but held on to win by a final score of 103-98. It was a bizarre victory that inspired as many reservations as hopes among Knicks fans because of the drastic difference in New York's play with and without Anthony.
In short, the Knicks got a glimpse of how frightful things might be if Anthony ultimately bolts as a free agent this summer.
We'll come back to the critical third-quarter turning point in a bit, but it's important to note just how good the Knicks looked in the early going—if only to emphasize how bad they looked later on.
In the first half, New York shared the ball, shot well and generally played a lot like the team that won 54 games a year ago. Head coach Mike Woodson changed things up with his rotation from the outset, featuring nine different players in the first quarter.
Fresh bodies seemed to do the trick, as the Knicks scored 29 points on 12-of-24 shooting in the period.
Things got even better from there, though, as Anthony and co. completely blitzed the Magic in the second quarter. Put simply, New York played its most complete 12-minute period of the year. When the dust settled, the Knicks had crushed Orlando by a 36-14 margin in the quarter, opening up a 65-41 lead that should have been very comfortable:
Knicks: 65 points are their season-high for any half— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 24, 2013
Just look at the shot chart from the first half!
New York was on fire, draining 8-of-14 from long distance and nailing 52 percent of its shots overall.
Sure, there were a couple of typical defensive issues for the Knicks—particularly when Andrea Bargnani and Amar'e Stoudemire shared the floor. But overall, things were looking unusually positive for Woody's beleaguered boys.
Anthony rolled his left ankle halfway through the third quarter. After scoring 19 points in 24 minutes and posting a team-best plus-14 rating, his night was over.
Although his grimacing hobble down the tunnel wasn't an ideal sight for the rest of his team, the 72-52 lead seemed certain to hold up. But the advantage dwindled as the Knicks gave up buckets on one end and stopped scoring on the other.
According to ESPN's Peter Kerasotis, Woodson had a hard time explaining his team's collapse:
After Melo went down, I don't know if we hung our heads or what, but they made a hell of a run. We just kept fighting and grinding and withstood the run and really made some defensive stops down the stretch to help us secure the game.
It was a remarkably thorough display of suck.
Per MSG's Alan Hahn:
Knicks again unraveling at both ends. No more dribble penetration leads to stagnant offense. Running around on D leading to open shots.— Alan Hahn (@alanhahn) December 24, 2013
Just as easily as New York had built its lead with Anthony on the floor, the advantage disappeared in his absence. Before the Knicks could blink, Orlando had made a game of it, per Evan Dunlap of OrlandoPinstripedPost.com:
Magic have Knicks' lead, which was once 25 points, down to one with 8:28 to go.— Evan Dunlap (@BQRMagic) December 24, 2013
The Knicks surrendered open threes and got absolutely crushed on the offensive boards. It was as though their desire to win the game had gone to the locker room with Anthony. The Magic, who had absolutely no business getting back into the game, played like a team that believed it was going to win.
In the end, New York held on for a five-point victory. But the Knicks were outscored by 19 points in the second half and ended up sneaking away with a win that should have been a blowout. I guess this is the part where we credit Orlando for fighting until the final buzzer.
But really, the most important takeaway here is that the Knicks are nothing without 'Melo.
Shocking, I know.
There's a lot of sense behind arguments that say the Knicks are making a mistake by gearing their every decision toward pleasing Anthony. New York seems hellbent on re-signing 'Melo when he exercises his early-termination option this summer, but there should be real questions about his ability to lead a team as he enters his 30s.
At the same time, Anthony has been an undeniable positive for the Knicks this year. Per NBA.com, his presence on the floor makes New York about five points per 100 possessions more effective on offense. Plus, the Knicks' defensive rating improves by more than three points per 100 possessions when he plays.
Anthony has been impressive this year, despite having very little help.
And it's impossible to deny how much his absence affected this particular game.
New York's offense fell apart without its focal point. Say what you will about New York's uninventive play-calling and maddening reliance on isolation ball; Anthony's presence on the court makes all offense—ugly or otherwise—more effective.
Strangely, the rest of the Knicks also quit on defense when 'Melo hit the showers early.
Plus, the trickle-down effect of losing Anthony is substantial. New York is an old team with fragile players. With 'Melo out, every subsequent injury means a little more—and there are bound to be injuries, as Raymond Felton's strained groin in the fourth quarter proved.
If we're looking to make predictions about how the Knicks might play in a future without Anthony, it's a little dangerous to read too much into this game. Assuming 'Melo leaves as a free agent, it's not as though this exact cast of characters would remain intact.
So even if these players have grown to depend on Anthony in a way that makes them fall apart without him, there's a good chance that the star's departure would also coincide with a broader overhaul. That way, the Knicks' hypothetical future roster wouldn't contain quite so many of 'Melo's dependents.
Still, the Knicks got a scary look at how difficult life might be in the short term without their best player.
Sitting in the locker room and watching his team nearly cough up a massive lead, Anthony was probably wondering whether he wanted to be part of New York's long-term plans.