The gap between expectations and reality stung hard, leaving Carmelo Anthony to split the difference Saturday night in his final postgame soliloquy of the season.
Sitting on the dais at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where his Knicks had been vanquished by the Indiana Pacers, Anthony leaned into the microphone, his expression pained, his words hopeful.
“Over all, we had a hell of a season, hell of a year,” Anthony said, adding, “To get to this point right now, where we had a chance to get to a conference finals, we’ll take that.”
It was a mixed message, ripe for overinterpretation. Where some observers heard optimism, others heard a tacit acceptance of failure after the Knicks fell short of their goals.
The Knicks did not set out this season merely to improve or to win a single playoff series. They set out to challenge the Miami Heat’s supremacy — a quest cut short by a Pacers team that was younger and tougher, less glamorous but more polished and determined.
Beat the Heat? The Knicks never even earned the chance to meet the Heat in the games that matter most.
Anthony is right to accentuate the positive, having delivered a 54-victory season, an Atlantic Division title and the franchise’s first playoff series victory in 13 years. But so much more was expected of a team stocked with high-priced talent and distinguished veterans.
The Knicks decorated their lockers with Larry O’Brien Trophy decals, crowed when they routed the Heat twice and harrumphed when anyone suggested that the road to the title still went through Miami.
Their bravado often outpaced their play, especially in the middle of the season, when the Knicks played at a .500 level for 40 games. From a team based in New York, the bravado and star power only inflated expectations: if the Knicks look and act like championship contenders, then they must be championship contenders.
That thinking was as flawed as the roster itself, a hard truth that the front office must confront once again, now that the illusory title chase is over.
For better or worse, the Knicks are defined by Anthony, a splendid scorer who has not learned to expand his game or to consistently involve teammates. After being rightly praised for a more team-oriented approach in the regular season, Anthony regressed in the playoffs, taking a career-high 25.8 shots a game and converting just 40.6 percent.
At their best this season, the Knicks were a well-orchestrated, ball-moving, 3-point-shooting offensive juggernaut. That worked well as long as Anthony and J. R. Smith were participating in the ball movement part, and not so well when they reverted to predictable isolation play.
The Knicks can win with Anthony, but they have to surround him with playmakers to offset his ball-dominating ways and find him a suitable co-star.
Amar’e Stoudemire was supposed to fill that role, but his game and Anthony’s have never meshed, and now Stoudemire’s health is betraying him. He played 29 regular-season games between knee operations and sparingly in the playoffs.
The idea that Anthony and Stoudemire might approximate the harmonious partnership of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade has never seemed more outlandish.
Stoudemire could still be useful as a second-unit scorer, but it is hard to envision him back in a starting role. Anthony thrived this season at power forward, Stoudemire’s position, and the Knicks had their most success when Stoudemire was out, going 21-9 to start the season and 21-5 after his second knee operation.