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Carmelo Anthony: The Last of the Bucket-getters

The NBA has changed dramatically since his 2003 debut. But as Melo climbs up the scoring charts, the era-defying nature of his game hits truer than ever.

Looking back through our modern lens, the 2005 NBA Finals were an abomination. An affront to aesthetics. A plodding, overly deliberate mess of half-court ball.

The Spurs defeated the Pistons four games to three to win their third title in six years… without scoring 100 even once. Final scores from the series were bookended by Spurs wins of 84-69 and 81-74. In a season that featured the Malice at the Palace only seven months earlier, it’s the ’05 Finals that arguably aged worse by comparison.

In each of those cases, basketball needed to change — and it did. And the game that Larry Brown’s Pistons played 16 years ago is not the three-bombing, pacey-spacey game that resumed play last week around the Association.

In fact, over these many years, there’s arguably just one thing in all of basketball that’s remained swaggeringly, stubbornly constant. A monolithic work carved in marble rather than shaped in moldable clay.

Carmelo Anthony.

After being allegedly washed and ostensibly on the outside of basketball looking in for a good few years — he played all of 10 games in 2018-19 for a Houston team that didn’t make much sense for him — Melo was every bit of the spark the Los Angeles Lakers needed Sunday night. Coming off the bench, he scored 28 points in 28 minutes to will the Purple and Gold over the finish line against Memphis and the redoubtable Ja Morant with a flurry of iso riffs and opportunistic catch-and-shoots.

He outscored LeBron James, who played 12 more minutes. He outscored Anthony Davis, who played six more minutes. And he outscored Russell Westbrook, who for all of his once-in-a-lifetime talents has never been and likely will never be what Carmelo Anthony always was and cannot quit being.

A bucket-getter.

Let’s be clear — in the hardwood parlance, “bucket-getter” doesn’t just mean big-time scorer (which a guy like Russ has proven to be in his Hall of Fame career). It’s more specific than that. But even “knockdown shooter,” while closer in definition, doesn’t quite get to the thing itself. The bucket-getter does not concern himself with concepts such as “mid-range” or even “shot selection.” To such a purist, breaking down buckets into sub-categories at all would be reductive.

Because buckets are simply buckets, and sacredly so. And Getters like Melo, rarer and rarer as they may be with each passing season in the efficiency-or-death NBA, will them into existence with equal parts audacity and artistry.

Crucially, the bucket-getter is going out of style in our age of analytics in which even the prettiest 16-footer is only on the menu if a defense is effectively begging you to take it by leaving the edge of the paint wide-the-hell-open. Our creeping orthodoxy about what constitutes a good shot comes down more to heat maps and large data samples than on-court feel in the moment.

But if anything, that’s why Carmelo — a man who is utterly feel — is such a thrill when he’s cooking.

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I don’t mean to suggest that a 37-year-old Anthony has suddenly found the Fountain of Youth in some long-forgotten catacombs beneath LA Live. It may be that the imperatives of running the floor at pace and shooting the lights out from three prevent him from playing serious high-leverage minutes in a deep playoff run, to say nothing of the fact that the man wasn’t so interested in defense even during his bygone physical prime.

And further, while operators like Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul have booked Melo-esque buckets in bunches throughout their career, their absolutely surgical, practically inhuman efficiency prevents them from being labeled the same way we label Mr. Anthony, whose career three-point percentage of 35.5 is almost exactly the current NBA average and whose true shooting percentage of 54.2 is just 76th among active players and outside the top 250 all-time.

To put it gingerly, the rule changes and stylistic imperatives that transformed the game from the trudging offensive purgatory of 2004-05 to the skip-stop express train of today did so to the glorification of Steph, KD, and CP3 — and at the expense of the bucket-getters.

Melo last made an All-NBA Team in 2013, the last year he led a team to the playoffs as their No. 1 option. And one year before Curry announced the birth of a new era in earnest with his first All-NBA nod.

The Getters don’t own the same cosmic real estate in the basketball universe that they used to, but let’s be clear that they weren’t somehow market-corrected. Defenses didn’t suddenly “figure out” how to neutralize the preeminent jab-stepping, dagger-throwing black belts of the halfcourt arts; rather, they were legislated out of the game in a deluge of small ball and the systematic devaluation of the long two.

These days, the archetype applies more to bench scorers like Jordan Clarkson than the NBA’s foremost offensive stars.

And that’s what makes Melo’s throwback barrage Sunday night at Staples Center a triumph.

He’s the last one left.

Sometimes, you’re convinced a fish was long extinct until you discover one off the coast of Madagascar. And the all-world bucket-getter of record — Carmelo Kyam Anthony — is a coelacanth. He may look a bit like a dinosaur in the textbooks, but if you’ve never seen one up close, you’re missing out on the kind of magnificent beast that defies the very notion of eras in time.

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