Carmelo Anthony willed the New York Knicks to a come-from-behind victory against the Orlando Magic on Saturday, scoring 22 of his game-high 40 after halftime as New York took the 114-106 win. After the game, Magic coach Jacque Vaughn marveled at the five-time All-Star's display.
I asked Vaughn what changed for Anthony in the second half, and particularly in the fourth quarter, after Orlando limited him to an inefficient 18 points in the first half.
"His ability to create his own shots, it's just really good," Vaughn said. "And he made shots and that's why he's an All-Star."
Not even a week has passed since the Magic last faced LeBron James, the league's reigning MVP, but Vaughn said Anthony is a more difficult cover, and he praised his team for its work against the Syracuse product.
"I give our guys credit to adjusting on the fly [and] adjusting during timeouts," Vaughn said. "This is the most we've challenged our guys to change different coverages throughout the course of a game, and extremely positive in the way we responded.
"No defense is perfect. You're gonna give up layups, you're gonna give up dunks sometimes, but the way we responded throughout the course of the game [was] extremely positive for us."
Anthony poured in 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting in the fourth quarter alone, nearly outscoring Orlando (17 points) by himself. He did most of his damage in pick-and-roll sets, working with Tyson Chandler at the top of the arc to force a switch onto whomever was guarding Chandler. As a result, Josh McRoberts and Nikola Vucevic spent a majority of the fourth quarter on the man whom McRoberts called "probably the best scorer in the world right now," which situation is obviously less than ideal for Orlando.
McRoberts drew ire from some Magic fans for his defense against Anthony in the fourth quarter. But as the Duke product explained, covering perimeter players is new to him.
"I've never guarded a wing," McRoberts, a natural power forward, said. "High school, college, NBA, never. This year, getting a pretty big taste of it."
McRoberts has defended the likes of Luol Deng, James, and Anthony in his first season with the Magic. Sometimes it's by design, but other times it comes as a consequence of Orlando's switch-happy perimeter coverage.
"It's not a lot of fun, but I do what I gotta do to try to help us get wins," McRoberts said. "I mean, I pretty much shut [Anthony] down tonight, I think, so..."
Vaughn went with McRoberts over rookies DeQuan Jones and Andrew Nicholson, both of whom played well in limited minutes. Responding to two separate questions about those players, Vaughn cited New York's lineups as the reason they didn't get more playing time. "I wasn't going to put [Nicholson] on Carmelo or [Amar'e] Stoudemire," he said.
Jones earned praise from Vaughn, who noted that the rookie from Miami is "maturing" and that his "mistakes are diminishing." However, he said that he elected not to play Jones late in the game due to "lineups on the floor and the defensive schemes we were in."
The end-game coverage that leaves big men like McRoberts and Vucevic isolated against some of the world's greatest perimeter players is one concern of Magic swingman Arron Afflalo. He said he and his teammates, along with the coaching staff, have noticed it and are working to address it.
"There's certain instances and points within the game we can fine-tune and simplify and play smarter," Afflalo said. Later, he added, "you have to learn how to make that adjustment to keep the right matchups and the right things going for us [in] the last minutes of the game."
I asked Afflalo if Orlando had given any thought to simply not switching their pick-and-roll coverage.
"It's hard to just not switch because when there's a pick-and-roll, there's a disadvantage to the guy guarding him," Afflalo said. "So there's a commitment level and help-side defense. It's not as easy as it seems. But we need to fine-tune it so that it can't get so exposed."
Perhaps the Magic can work out those issues on their cross-country flight on Sunday. They begin a four-game roadtrip Monday night against the Portland Trail Blazers. A loss there would give Orlando its longest futility streak since it lost 13 straight games from March 13th to April 10th, 2004.