Yet this entire 2012-13 NBA season feels like make or break when it comes to the New York Knicks. Why? In one word:
The Knicks are in first place at 9-3 heading into Monday night’s contest at Atlantic Division and now city rival Brooklyn, which is 8-4. The Knicks’ start is not a mirage. They’ve vanquished some quality opponents, including Miami and San Antonio. They’re getting outstanding contributions from J.R. Smith, Raymond Felton, Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd and Rasheed Wallace as well as star Carmelo Anthony.
In other words, they have enough of a team to compete for an NBA championship. All they need is a leader. All they need is a guy like LeBron James or Kobe Bryant to carry them on his back.
All they need is Carmelo to be that player.
Since the Knicks acquired Carmelo in a trade with the Denver Nuggets in February, 2011, he has been designated as the savior. Yet up until the start of this season, the team was just a glamour act — Carmelo and the Pips, if you will — with little real potency.
Now they have that with a well-rounded roster. What is unclear is whether they can continue to fulfill their potential during the regular season, then raise their defensive game in the playoffs. They’re third in the NBA in scoring at a tick over 103 points per contest. But they’re allowing 95 points per game, 10th in the league in that category. And they’re No. 28 in rebounding.
Carmelo’s defense, or lack of it, won’t be an issue until late April, when the postseason begins. Then it will become one. Can Carmelo continue to score at a 25-points-per-game clip once the playoffs begin, while also playing at least adequate defense?
LeBron has no problem doing it. Neither does Kobe. The question about whether Carmelo can is what earns the status of make or break for these Knicks.
Stinker of the week
Are the Pittsburgh Steelers an emergency response team?
The only event last weekend that drew attention away from the Steelers’ eight-turnover flopperoo Sunday in a 20-14 loss to the woeful Cleveland Browns was the 4th-and-29 conversion by Baltimore running back Ray Rice that enabled the Ravens to humiliate the San Diego Chargers, 16-13.
Pittsburgh boasts the ignominy of submitting the worst performance by a good team this season. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger is on the sidelines. But there was no excuse for the hapless, mistake-filled, penalty-laden disaster that the Steelers unleashed on the world Sunday.
At 9-2, Baltimore is on its way to the AFC North title. The Steelers are tied for second with Cincinnati at 6-5, and although a wild-card berth seems likely, it certainly isn’t a lock, even in an anemic conference. A bail-out is sorely needed.
Enter Roethlisberger, or so the Steelers hope. He is eyeing a return for this critical game, but he’s doing so while recuperating from an unusual rib and shoulder injury. If he does return, he’ll be the leader of Pittsburgh’s emergency response team, because in football terms, there isn’t a more important moment than this.
Big Ben not only needs to save the Steelers’ season, he has to rid his franchise of the stench from last Sunday. It’s debatable which challenge is more formidable.
Once again, brawn doesn't beat brains
A word about “Meathead Football.”
That is the type on display Saturday at the Los Angeles Coliseum, toward the end of the USC-Notre Dame game. Lane Kiffin is only the latest practitioner, but the behavior exists across the football landscape.
Final four minutes or so. Notre Dame up by nine, so USC needs two scores. After two pass interference penalties on ND, the Trojans line up on the one-foot line. Time is precious. Notre Dame’s goal-line defense is like titanium.
So what does Kiffin do? He tries three straight punches into the heart of the Notre Dame defense. It not only failed to work, it killed precious time; even if USC scored, it would have to get the ball back somehow.
The final play was a fourth-down pass to the fullback, which he dropped. But that was a good call, although it would have been an even better call to a more sure-handed tight end. Notre Dame can be passed on, even in the red zone. That was the percentage move. Throw, throw, throw, throw. Roll out and throw. Drop back and throw. But throw it. Get a touchdown, but make sure the clock stops if the pass on first, second or third down is incomplete.
Instead, Meathead Football. The old “We’re not going to let somebody deny us a foot of turf in our house.” Really?
USC probably wouldn’t have won that game anyway. But what Kiffin did was add a layer of stupidity to a high-profile defeat. Most of the time, “We’re smarter than you” trumps “We’re tougher than you” when it comes to play-calling.
Where is the fairness in sports?
I don’t mean in the games themselves. After all, we have officials to patrol that, as well as league offices, with fans and media chiming in whenever those two institutions fall asleep.
I’m talking about fairness to individuals. Where is it? Does it have any place in sports?
Here’s an example: Mike Brown was fired from his head coaching position by the Lakers after a 1-4 start. He had only been on the job for a little more than a year. Last season he didn’t have a training camp because of a lockout. This season he was installing a new system to accommodate new personnel, especially Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.
But the Lakers dropped the axe. They felt time was precious. Therefore, Brown was out, Mike D’Antoni was in.
Yet Harbaugh put a perfectly effective quarterback on the bench in favor of a younger, more dynamic player. Was it fair?
Here’s the bottom line: In both cases, the first responsibility for both the Lakers’ front office and the Niners’ head coach is to do what’s best for the team. It doesn’t matter if feelings are hurt. It doesn’t matter if it appears unfair on the surface. Life is often unfair, and life in professional sports is even more unfair.
If Brown and Smith had been treated that way in everyday life, there might be a gripe. But sports is all about the cutthroat pursuit of victory, whether one likes it or not. And also, as a side note, both Brown and Smith are paid extremely well.
When you enter pro sports, you check fair at the door.
A game of pepper
Mark Cuban took a shot at Laker fans by saying, “There is just more Twitter courage in Southern California than probably any other part of the world.” After the Dodgers, Angels, USC and a 7-7 start by the Lakers, that area should be thankful to be No. 1 at something. ...
Someday on Andrew Bynum’s tombstone it will say, “Out Indefinitely.” …
The Cleveland Browns had planned to hand out white flags to their fans before the team’s game Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but canceled the idea because of the association with surrender. Who’s running their promotions department, France? …
I would like to have seen Conrad Dobler in his prime go up against Ndamukong Suh. There would have been a certain medieval Marsellus Wallace quality to it. …
Reggie Evans of the Brooklyn Nets is the first NBA player fined for flopping. In a way, he is the Emil Jannings of professional basketball, since Jannings was the first recipient of an Oscar. …
Michael Ventre is a regular contributor to NBCSports.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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