Sunday afternoon at the United Center, handmade signs asking Knicks superstar Carmelo Anthony to take his talents to the shores of Lake Michigan littered the sellout crowd of 21,739. One fan even had a white No. 7 jersey with "Anthony" printed across the back. One of those signs was held by a small child a few rows behind the Knicks bench, and after New York's 109-90 loss to the Bulls — their sixth straight defeat and ninth in their last 10 games — Anthony admitted he saw the sign that subtly read, "Melo to Chicago."
"Yeah, I saw it," he said with a smile. "It was a good sign."
Anthony was half-heartedly joking, admitting he was referring to the artistic design of the sign when he said it was "good," not that his opinion of the sign was a signal that the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent might be headed to the Windy City next year. Yet he was anything but laughing when describing his team's 19-point loss in which they trailed 16-1 to open the game, were down by as many as 25 points in the first half and allowed the Bulls to set a franchise record by committing just three turnovers.
Anthony finished with 21 points — seven points below his season average — on 8-for-17 shooting, two rebounds and three assists in 38 minutes. He knocked down a pair of 3-pointers, drawing scattered cheers from the crowd, but also turned the ball over one more time (four) than the Bulls did as a team.
After going 2-11 in February, Knicks head coach Mike Woodson spoke before the game about his team needing to come out with a sense of urgency. But in their first March game, the complete opposite occurred — they trailed 37-16 after the first quarter — and New York is now 21-39, 6 1/2 games back of the final spot in the dreadful Eastern Conference playoff race and needing a 12-10 finish just to avoid a 50-loss season for the first time since 2010.
"It’s frustrating, it’s embarrassing, the outcomes of the game," Anthony said after the game. "Teams win and lose night in and night out, but we’re not approaching the game from that standpoint with a winning attitude, winning mentality. It’s just not happening. It’s frustrating, I don’t like to be embarrassed like that."
The Knicks showed some fight, coming within nine points in the second quarter, but against a Bulls team that has won nine of 11 and five straight at home, once that lead disappears there's a good chance it isn't coming back against the league's second best defense and suddenly resurgent offense. Perhaps it was the start time, as the Knicks are now 0-7 in games that begin before 3 p.m. local time, losing by an average of more than 23 points per contest.
Either way, Anthony knows something needs to change on the effort front for a team with the second highest payroll in the NBA.
"It’s hard to keep coming up with excuses about why it continues to happen. At this point there’s really no answers to it. We’ve got to have some type of sense of pride and just to go out there and compete," Anthony said. "And it seems like we’re not even competing right now. And then when we dig ourselves a hole and we try to fight back, and by then it’s too late.
"We’ve got to do a much better job of having a sense of pride out there and just play basketball and not worry about whatever’s going on, whatever it is. We’re just not getting it done. To sit here and make excuses about this, about that, we’re just not making it happen and getting it done."
If effort is what Anthony feels his team is lacking, it must have been twice as difficult to deal with while watching the team in the other sleeved uniforms exert it for 48 minutes.
Chicago has long been considered a potential destination for Anthony when he opts out of his contract this offseason (something he's already said he will do), and for a player who seems exhausted by his team's lack of effort and readiness to play it makes plenty of sense that playing for Tom Thibodaeu reportedly interests him.
"They always are a team that’s going to compete, play hard," Anthony said of the Bulls. "So for whatever reason that is — I don’t know if it’s the system, Thibs’ system — for whatever reason they’re always going to be there, competing."
Thibodeau said he doesn't have a personal relationship with the seven-time All Star but spoke briefly about what makes Anthony such a difficult opposing cover.
"The thing is, he’s such a tough cover because of all the different ways he can score. There’s going to be a lot of scramble plays, a lot of hustle plays, and that’s a byproduct of all the attention (Anthony) gets," Thibodeau said. "He can do all those things, and he’s still capable of having a huge night against you. You try to make him work for his points and know he has the ability to make shots, even when he’s defended well."
Anthony did just that, hitting a number of difficult midrange baskets and finishing inside against the defense of Jimmy Butler, who scored 19 points and grabbed six rebounds while primarily guarding Anthony much of the afternoon. Whatever Thibodeau's opinion of Anthony was, it didn't diminish after this afternoon's performance.
As expected, a frustrated Anthony did not delve into his potential free-agency plans, specifically when asked about the salary-cap restrictions the Knicks will face in 2014 if he returns to New York. A true professional, whether or not he's playing in New York next season, Anthony has stayed committed in his attempt to turn this year's Knicks team around. That means putting free agency on the back burner and opting not to address rumors that inevitably pop up around the league.
"I can’t even see next year. S---, I can’t even see tomorrow at this point," he said. "It’s hard for me to focus on (free agency) while going through the journey right now. So I’m just trying to stay with it, stay focused, stay positive throughout this situation. Anything you care about, it becomes frustrating at now. And it’s definitely becoming frustrating."
That frustration is certainly boiling as the losses pile up in New York. In Chicago, only time will tell if this July that sign, "Melo to Chicago," becomes a reality.