By JOSH NEWMAN
Special to ZAGSBLOG
NEW YORK — Nearly 14 months after Carmelo Anthony forced his way out of Denver for good and onto the biggest stage the NBA has to offer, maybe the Knicks finally became his team in a game that they had to have.
With the Knicks’ playoff hopes and positioning defined as tenuous at best on Sunday afternoon, Anthony hit the game-tying 3-pointer with 11.2 seconds to play in regulation over Taj Gibson and the game-winning trey with 8.2 seconds to play with Luol Deng all over him as the Knicks enhanced their playoff chances with a 100-99 overtime win over the Chicago Bulls at Madison Square Garden.
Anthony’s defining moment as a Knick came on a 43-point day when the Knicks raced out to a 21-point first quarter lead against the Eastern Conference’s best team, trailed by as many as 10 with 4:01 to play in regulation and needed crucial missed free throws from Deng and reigning NBA MVP Derrick Rose inside the final 34 seconds to set up Anthony’s game-tying 3-pointer.
The win moves the Knicks to one game ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks for eighth place in the Eastern Conference with 10 games to play.
The Knicks and Bulls will be seeing more of each other early this week with the second end of two straight games between the teams slated for Tuesday evening at the United Center. The Knicks and Bucks will meet on Wednesday in Milwaukee in a game that is critical for both sides.
The Knicks could end Sunday night in seventh place and with more breathing room in the Eastern Conference if the Atlantic Division-leading Boston Celtics beat the Philadelphia 76ers, who currently occupy seventh in the East.
The way the standings sit right now, the Bulls and Knicks would meet in the first round. With that, Sunday’s improbable win was huge from a confidence standpoint as the Bulls got Rose back after he missed 12 games with a strained right groin.
“I think it more so matters for us right now and what we’re trying to accomplish, honestly,” Tyson Chandler said in a packed postgame locker room. “We know Milwaukee is hot on our tails and Philly is right in front of us so this game was really important to come and win tonight.”
Anthony has had his moments as a Knick, but with Amar’e Stoudemire (bulging disk in lower back) and Jeremy Lin (torn left meniscus) out through the remainder of the regular season at the very least, this is Anthony’s team and he is charged with the responsibility of bring it back to the postseason. When the Knicks needed a play, he made it on Sunday.
After Rose missed two free throws with the Bulls up 91-88 with 19.4 seconds to go, the Knicks brought the ball up court, found Anthony along the right wing and he let it fly with Gibson in his face to tie the game at 91 as what had been a sleepy, Easter Sunday crowd at the Garden quickly turned euphoric.
“It was a great atmosphere. That’s how the Garden’s supposed to be. This was a playoff game,” Anthony said. “We might play these guys in the playoffs if we keep doing what we’re doing and get that seed. So this is a big statement game for us and we willed this win today.”
The game-winning trey came on a fourth opportunity with the Knicks trailing 99-97 after Anthony missed a layup, had the follow blocked and J.R. Smith capped a horrendous day by missing his final shot. Chandler rebounded the Smith miss and kicked it back out with 22 seconds to play before Anthony capped his monster day with the 3-pointer to cap the scoring.
“Well, I mean this is one of the top, overtime, Easter Sunday,” Anthony said of where this effort ranked in his career. “Everybody’s watching, everybody’s in the Garden, so this might’ve been one of the top.”
Sunday was a good start to what will be a tough road to a playoff spot over the final 10 games. After the return game at the Bulls on Tuesday and at Milwaukee on Wednesday, the Knicks still have games left at home against the Celtics, Heat and Clippers, while a game at the Hawks also looms before the regular season ends on April 26. The playoffs begin April 28.
All told, the Knicks still have six games left against teams at .500 or better, including four of the next five contests over an eight-day stretch.
The Knicks’ situation may be more in question than that of the Bulls, but they’re also playing for something at this point.
“We have to come out [Tuesday] with a sense of urgency,” said Rose, who finished with 29 points despite shooting 8-for-26 in 39 minutes. “This team is fighting for a playoff spot. Even though we are in the playoffs we can’t come out sluggish.”
***For more Notes & Quotes, read the NBA.com notebook here.
Photo: Getty Images