By Sean Hartnett
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Carmelo Anthony was the closer on Sunday night. Melo made his triumphant return to the Knicks' lineup against his former Denver Nuggets teammates and refused to let this game slip through his fingers.
Anthony scored a game-high 34 points. More than statistics can bear out, Melo did everything possible to lock down the Knicks' 112-106 victory.
He understood the importance of beating his former team and the need to keep the Knicks' undefeated home record alive at 8-0 -- especially with the Los Angeles Lakers invading the Garden on Thursday night.
A younger Melo was once maligned for a lack of desperation in his game. Fairly or unfairly, critics of Anthony leaped upon a perceived laid-back attitude and lack of focus.
He's a different cat these days. Melo is diving for loose balls, attacking the rim with authority and fiercely ripping down rebounds.
Hartnett: The New Melo Is Here To Stay
Now, Melo's critics are unable to diagnose a weakness in his game or question his desire. He wears his heart on his sleeve every night and is playing the most motivated basketball of his 10-year NBA career.
Without any media prodding, Mike Woodson said flat-out that Anthony is an early MVP candidate during his postgame press conference.
"Melo's playing at such a high level. There's no question he's one of the MVP candidates in the league," Woodson told reporters after the victory. He's been great for us. His teammates -- they rely on him and he's relying on guys around him to help him. That's the beauty of our team right now."
Anthony had a rough start to the game, missing his first five field-goal attempts because of a lack of feel after missing consecutive games due to a lacerated left middle finger. A younger Melo might have dropped his head and become less involved, but not this Melo -- not the present-day Melo who willingly accepts the pressure and uses it as his fuel.
Melo attacked the Nuggets. He brought the game right to them. Anthony attacked the basket and earned 16 attempts from the free-throw line.
If anything, Melo was too hyped-up for this game, as he began the fourth quarter on the bench with four fouls. When Melo reentered the game, his focus was apparent for all to see.
"He came in. It was a two point ... four point game, and he hit those two tough shots. It's a difference in game," Steve Novak told MSG's Tina Cervasio.
Anthony alertly tipped in a missed foul shot by J.R. Smith. Later, he took a shot in the mouth from former Knick Danilo Gallinari. He didn't cough up the ball or accentuate the contact -- instead, Melo coolly sunk the mid-range jumper.
"It felt good to come back at home and play against these guys. It was a physical game, tough game. We won, that's all that matters," Melo said following the Knicks' victory.
The last thing that the reeling Brooklyn Nets need is a highly-motivated Melo coming into their building on Tuesday night. Brooklyn has lost four in a row and needs to get back in the win column. Anthony scored 35 points and hauled down 13 rebounds in their first meeting. It wasn't enough as the Knicks lost, 96-89, in overtime.
Melo is playing with a burning fire in his heart and is desperate to make a statement against the Nets in their rematch.
Should Melo and the Knicks continue their electric start by beating the rival Nets on Tuesday and defeating the Lakers on Thursday, MVP chants and debate over his candidacy will continue to grow louder.
Thanks to Anthony's renewed focus and drive, the Knicks are standing alone with the best record in the Eastern Conference and announcing their legitimacy to the rest of the league.
Is Melo unquestionably an early-season MVP candidate? Sound off below and send your tweets to @HartnettWFAN.
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