After watching LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant will their respective teams to victory over the weekend, it's fair to question if Carmelo Anthony is simply an all-star inside a superstar's body.
It's pretty tough to ask a guy who scored 39 points (on 13-for-26 shooting), grabbed 11 rebounds (six offensive) and had four steals to do more to win a basketball game. But if the Nuggets have any prayer of beating the Jazz in this first round series, Carmelo Anthony must elevate his play from all-star level to superstar level...quickly. And doing so involves a heck of a lot more than just scoring a bunch of points.
Before I get flogged again for being "anti-Melo," let me clearly state (again) that I'm a huge Carmelo Anthony fan, am routinely the first to recognize that we wouldn't have made seven straight playoff appearances without him and often cringe at the thought of a post-Melo Nuggets (a possibility that the east coast media is already conjuring up). Melo is a bona fide all-star and will be for years to come. But a superstar, regrettably, he may not be.
Facing elimination, a superstar gets to the free throw line seven times, puts up a 2010 playoff high 46 points to go along with five assists while holding his opponent to five points below his scoring average...like Dwyane Wade did on Sunday morning.
After losing to the worst team in the playoffs, a superstar puts up a triple double - 37 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists - to send a "we're not losing to this team again" message as LeBron James did on Sunday afternoon.
With his shooting accuracy off, a superstar looks for other ways to contribute, such as defending the opposing team's best player, grabbing big defensive rebounds and blocking a key shot during crunch time...as Kevin Durant did against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers last Thursday night.
And it goes without saying how the superstars of yesteryear - MJ, Magic, Bird, Hakeem and Isiah just to name a few - would respond to playoff losses.
Carmelo Anthony may be the best scorer in the NBA, but I fear for our sake as Nuggets fans that that's all he is: a great scorer. Seven years and seven consecutive playoff appearances later, Melo infrequently poses his will on games a la LeBron, Wade, Kobe or Durant. We've seen him do it before, Games 1 and 2 against the Lakers last year immediately comes to mind, but unfortunately not enough (Games 3 through 6 against the Lakers also comes to mind).
For example, en route to his 39 points and 11 rebounds against the Jazz in Game 4, Melo turned the ball over nine times, found himself in early foul trouble for the third consecutive game (I'll grant that the refs called an absurdly unfair game in favor of Utah - but - this has been a pattern for Melo in the playoffs for years now), got to the charity stripe just five times, dished out a mere one assist and turned the players he was "guarding" - previously unknowns C.J. Miles and Wesley Matthews - into all-stars.
And Melo's leadership is suspect, as well. In his post-game press conference, Melo said: "I'm trying, I'm trying to beat them. I'm trying to do everything I can in my power to beat the Jazz. But, at the end of the day, I need some help. I can't do this by myself." With Melo it's still "I, I, I and I..." I couldn't help but think of when the legendary Larry Bird called out his Celtics teammates after Game 4 of the 1984 NBA Finals by saying: "We played like a bunch of women tonight." Note he didn't say: "They played like a bunch of women tonight."
A superstar saves the "I's" for his inner voice. Did LeBron, Wade or Durant pubicly ask for help after their teams recent losses? No. They went out and played the best they could, and their teammates naturally followed with great games themselves (that whole "a rising tide lifts all ships" concept at work...that's leadership).
In theory, the Nuggets shouldn't need Melo to play like a superstar to beat a thinned-out Utah Jazz team and you can't pin these losses on #15. You'd think an all-star performance from Melo alongside teammates like Chauncey Billups, Kenyon Martin, Nene, J.R. Smith, Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo could handle Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Paul Millsap, Kyrylo Fesenko, C.J. Miles and Wesley Matthews. But thanks to a shoddy effort by the Nuggets players collectively and an exceptional effort by the Jazz, we've learned better.
Billups has faded on us. Perhaps due to logging too many minutes over the years and this season in particular. Perhaps because he's uninterested in listening to acting coach Adrian Dantley's orders and only responds to George Karl. Who knows. Nene has gone fofinha yet again (ask anyone who speaks Portuguese what that means). J.R. Smith just needs to be gone. We don't need a poor man's John Starks in Denver anymore. And while we're getting decent outings from Lawson, Afflalo and K-Mart, none of those guys have ever won a game by themselves nor should they be asked to.
Of all the players on a talent-laden Denver Nuggets roster, only Carmelo Anthony can win a game by himself. And unfortunately for Melo, another 30-plus scoring game isn't going to cut it.
In the Carmelo Anthony Era, the Nuggets have never won a playoff elimination game and it's no accident that Melo has been a no-show in all of those games (as a rookie in 2004 he was literally a no-show, unable to play with a sprained knee). If they're to win their first elimination game with Melo by beating the Jazz on Wednesday night, he's going to have to score 40-something points, grab 10-plus rebounds, get to free throw line at least seven times for 14 attempts, play lock down defense, dish out at least three assists and stay out of foul trouble.
Guest hosting on NBATV on Sunday night, Houston Rockets forward Shane Battier said: "Superstars win playoff games."
I guess we'll find out on Wednesday (and possibly Friday) if the Nuggets have a superstar on their roster in Carmelo Anthony, or just a really good all-star.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images: Andy Lyons