By MARC BERMAN
Last Updated: 4:27 AM, January 19, 2013
Posted: 1:40 AM, January 19, 2013
The Knicks flew back yesterday morning from England — with a band of players Carmelo Anthony believes is the best he ever has been a part of.
Perhaps the perspective of being back where he won a gold medal with the U.S. Olympic team and seeing a key component return in Iman Shumpert underscored the point to Anthony.
Anthony has not advanced out of the first round of the playoffs in two tries with the Knicks and has done so just once in his nine NBA seasons.
“By far,’’ Anthony said Thursday night in London when asked whether this is his strongest team. “I have been on good teams before. But as far as being a complete team from top to bottom, this is the best team I’ve been a part of.’’
The Knicks’ British Invasion went perfectly. They whipped the Pistons at a sold-out O2 Arena, 102-87, after leaping out to a 16-2 start. Shumpert started at shooting guard in his season debut, the last piece added to the Knicks’ mix.
Anthony (26 points) and Amar’e Stoudemire (17 points) played together with ease and without ego. The only chemistry issue in Britain was whether yesterday’s snow would become a blizzard.
“We know the type of players we have,’’ Anthony said. “We have fun. We’re a fun team to watch. We trust each other in the locker room. We have fun with one another. Nothing else can come between us.’’
The Knicks, at 25-13, are one game behind the Heat for the best record in the East and two games up on the Nets in the Atlantic Division. They don’t play again until they host the Nets on Monday in an Martin Luther King Jr. Day matinee before what could be a contentious showdown in Boston on Thursday. (London’s favorite filmmaker, Spike Lee, has already guaranteed a victory over Brooklyn.)
The Knicks are not whole yet and may never be, but it may not matter. As coach Mike Woodson said, “I don’t know if we’ll ever get to a full deck.’’
The Knicks may have to do without starting point guard Raymond Felton for only two more games. Felton broke his right pinkie on Christmas Day. He said in London he plans to return in Philadelphia on Jan. 26.
All signs point to Felton rejoining the starting lineup in a three-guard alignment with Jason Kidd and Shumpert. That keeps Anthony at power forward, Tyson Chandler at center and the improving Stoudemire as a key bench ingredient.
As Marcus Camby said two weeks ago, “Our best lineup is with Melo at the 4.’’
Stoudemire repeatedly has said he is content with his bench role because the team keeps winning and he doesn’t want to disrupt the Big Apple cart. He is allowed to play 30 minutes now, but Woodson still is keeping him in the 20-minute range, possibly in anticipation of how the timing will work out when Felton and Shumpert are both active.
Woodson has had ample opportunity to start Stoudemire in the past few games due to the injuries, but he has chosen not to. He wants Stoudemire, who had his most comfortable offensive showing of the season in London in his eighth game, to familiarize himself with coming off the bench for the first time in his career. It is a similar situation to Woodson refusing to start sixth man J.R. Smith despite injuries.
Shumpert’s 15-minute London debut boosted the Knicks defense, especially at the outset, curing their recent slow beginnings.
“It’ll help when we get Raymond and Iman both,’’ Woodson said. “It starts with them up front in terms of applying pressure.’’
Aside from Felton, the Knicks are waiting on reserve big men Rasheed Wallace, 38, and Camby, 39, both of whom have chronic left-foot injuries.
Wallace and Camby probably never will be well at the same time. Camby is dealing with his second bout of plantar fasciitis and is at least two weeks away. Wallace’s return keeps getting delayed. There is concern Wallace’s stress reaction will turn into a season-ending stress fracture without proper rest.
In their injury-depleted state, the Knicks have routed the Heat twice by 20 points but have lost all three to the Bulls — without Derrick Rose. Still, Stoudemire fears the Heat the most.
“You got to show respect to the defending champs,’’ he said. “They won a championship last year. Miami is definitely playing well this year.’’
There was a nice moment in London, with Anthony and Stoudemire sharing the dais after the win, looking sharp in gray suits and comfortable together. When a British scribe asked whose team it was, Stoudemire interjected: “It’s Melo’s team.’’
Anthony countered, “No, it’s Jim Dolan’s team.’’
They laughed. Maybe they are simply a team.