For a franchise as starved for success as the New York Knicks, the team's 23-11 start has brought with it some restrained but enthusiastic championship hopes.
Despite reaching the postseason in each of the past two seasons, the Knicks have failed to register a playoff series win since the 1999-2000 season. In the 13 years since that run to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Knicks have tallied a regular-season record of 428-573.
Knick fans want to believe that this team has a serious shot at a title. They want to believe that their blistering hot three-point shooting (six players are shooting above 35.0 percent from deep) is sustainable. They want to believe that the historically defensively challenged of Amar'e Stoudemire and J.R. Smith can adopt the type of defensive intensity that their teammates have shown.
But most of all, New York fans hope that the 28-year-old Carmelo Anthony has finally matured from the me-first scorer who managed ridiculous numbers without postseason success in Denver. That Anthony has given way to one who appears to have fully bought into head coach Mike Woodson and his message of holding players accountable on both ends of the floor.
The first two-plus months of the 2012-13 season have shed favorable light on these optimistic expectations. Anthony has entrenched himself in the MVP race by playing the kind of unselfish basketball that analysts swore he couldn't.
His 29.3 points and 2.2 assists per game might have suggested that he's been the same old Melo, but his shooting percentages (47.7 from the field and 43.5 from beyond the arc) demonstrate a willingness to wait for his offensive chances within Woodson's system.
But for all of the gleeful championship dreams swirling around Big Apple, there is a quiet storm brewing around this Knicks team. And it has nothing to do with the return of Stoudemire, who was once thought to be the biggest detriment to any Knicks success.
Since Dec. 17, New York has played under .500 basketball (5-6). They have allowed seven teams to score over 100 points during that stretch, something they did just eight times in their first 23 games.
It's this kind of challenge that Knick fans have dreaded—how a once-hot team will bounce back from adversity or a poor stretch of play. There's been no precedent in recent years for fans to draw from.
New York will surely need the steady hand of Anthony to get this team back on track, back toward focusing on those championship dreams.
The first step was to get the talented forward to produce during a hotly contested Jan. 7 showdown with their Atlantic Division rivals, the Boston Celtics. But Anthony came up short. He might have scored 20 points, but he needed 26 shots to do so.
The scary part for Knicks fans, though, was what Anthony decided to do immediately following the game. While his teammates sauntered toward their locker room, Anthony headed straight for the Celtics locker room.
He and Celtics big man Kevin Garnett had a slew of physical battles throughout the contest, and the former Syracuse star was apparently unwilling to let the drama go when the final buzzer sounded.
There might be the temptation to believe that a veteran-laden team like New York would be able to shoulder a disgruntled, unstable player or two. But that type of behavior cannot come from the team's undisputed leader, regardless of the character level of his teammates.
The act was poorly thought out (if thought out at all) and only grew worse during its execution. Anthony reportedly refused to address the media following the game:
Carmelo has left the building and won't address the media tonight, the Knicks said.
He was just caught up in the moment, right? He let his emotions get the better of him and just needed time to cool off.
Well, not exactly. He had the time to cool off and instead seemingly spent those extra minutes seething over what he had to perceive as an egregious display from Garnett:
Carmelo Anthony waited for Kevin Garnett near the Celtics team bus, an eyewitness tells the Daily News.—Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) January 8, 2013
It's hard to put too much stock into a single regular season game, let alone one coming so close to the first of the year. But Knick fans can't be happy with Anthony's behavior, especially since the fanbase views Anthony as the key piece to realizing those championship dreams.
As noted by the AP's Brian Mahoney, Anthony's antics are absolutely a cause for concern, particularly given the media scrutiny the Knicks will inevitably face over a grueling 82-game regular season:
Takeaway from tonight: Even if he ends up being the MVP, have to wonder how (if) Carmelo can handle May.
This isn't the final smoke being exhausted from New York's championship fire, but it's one that has to dampen the flames a bit. As well as they have played up to this point, this team still has plenty of holes.
Anthony was supposed to be the one constant force at Woodson's disposal. And prior to Monday night, he had been just that. The Knicks haven't faced adversity like this recent stretch all season long. They needed a renitent showing from their MVP leader.
What they got was a disastrous, potentially ominous showing of Anthony wilting under the pressure.
Maybe this will be a wake-up call for the nine-year veteran. Knicks fans certainly hope so. Otherwise, those championship dreams will continue being stuck in hibernation.