NEW YORK — Let’s face it. If the Knicks’ opponent Wednesday night was the Milwaukee Bucks or Sacramento Kings, Carmelo Anthony might not have risked his sprained left ankle and returned to the court.
But when the opponent is the crosstown Brooklyn Nets, Anthony wanted to come back and make a statement.
“We wanted to win,” Anthony said after returning from a two-game hiatus because of the injury to score a game-best 31 points in the Knicks’ 100-86 victory over the Nets at Madison Square Garden.
“We was on our homecourt. At the end of the day these are statement games, it’s all big games, divisional games. Like I said they right across the bridge so these games definitely mean a lot to us.”
Tyson Chandler added 16 points and 12 rebounds, including five alley-oop dunks, and J.R. Smith had 19 points and five boards off the bench.
The Knicks (19-6) have now won five of six and 10 of 12 and lead the Nets (13-12) by six games in the Atlantic Division.
After being fouled by Dwight Howard of the Lakers last Thursday, Anthony went down hard and landed awkwardly. He left that game and then sat out two more, including Monday’s loss to Jeremy Lin and the Rockets.
Anthony said Monday he didn’t want to come back prematurely because the team needed him to be healthy going forward.
But after testing the ankle out during shootaround Wednesday morning and on the Garden court before the game, he said he felt ready to give it a go.
“I wasn’t too sure when I went out there,” he said. “Did some slides, tried to move side to side, some lateral movement drills. Felt pretty good for the most part. Throughout the game, I was feeling it a little bit.”
Anthony received treatment after the game and said it was bruised more than anything.
“It feels good,” he said. “It’s still bruised. That’s the only thing that’s bothering me, how badly I bruised it. As far as the ankle goes, the ankle is pretty fine.”
Despite being double-teamed for much of the game and some strong early defense by Gerald Wallace, Anthony was able to get open for jumpers and passed the ball when he wasn’t. He finished 12-for-22 and 4-of-8 from beyond the arc.
“They was double-teaming me as soon as I came across halfcourt,” he said. “When two guys are double-teaming one person, somebody’s going to be open. So it’s just a matter of just moving the ball and finding the open man.”
He followed up his 45-point outburst against Brooklyn in a Dec. 11 win there with this outing despite his injury, and is now averaging 37 points in three game against Brooklyn this year.
“There’s no doubt in my mind he’s an MVP candidate and I know it’s early but he’s playing at such a high level its scary,” Knicks coach Mike Woodson said. “Everyone’s benefitting from it. He’s making guys around him better and the results are wins. And that’s all that matters at the end of the day.”
Woodson added: ”If he’s not 100 percent I’ll take whatever percent he was tonight because that was awesome.”
Said Chandler of Anthony: “He is a special player. There are not many in this world who can take four or five days off and then put up 31 points. He’s having an MVP-type season.”
The Knicks now lead the season series against the Nets 2-1, with one more game at the Garden Jan. 21.
For now, Anthony returned to make sure the rivalry tilted in the Knicks’ favor.
“You guys are going to make it a rivalry, so we accept that,” Anthony said of the media. ”We know they right across the bridge. Brooklyn against New York Knicks, it’s gonna always be there. EVerybody’s gonna talk about it. It’s gonna always be a rivalry from here on out. So we accept that challenge.”
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Photo: Daily News