RIO DE JANEIRO — “This is his fourth one,” Tom Thibodeau said of Carmelo Anthony this week. “We have a number of guys where it’s their first time. His leadership has been phenomenal. The way he is in practice, in meetings, the way he plays. He’s saying the right things, obviously, but more importantly, he’s doing the right things.”
This is Olympic Melo. The story began when he was coming off his rookie season in 2004, it continued with surprisingly dominant performances in 2008 and 2012, and now he’s the leader. He brings this team onto the court, and afterward he’s the unofficial spokesman, and maybe the unofficial uncle. Other players credit his leadership almost as a reflex, and the coaches are no different. “He’s very inclusive,” Thibodeau said. “We have a great spirit because of that.”
If any of this leadership angle felt manufactured by USA basketball—it kinda did, after a while—that ended last night. Australia gave the U.S. by far its toughest game of the tournament, and it was back-and-forth for almost the entire night. Kevin Durant was struggling (4/16), the Aussies were flying all over the court, and the U.S. was in real danger of losing its first Olympic game since 2004. Then Carmelo stepped up to break the game open, and it was over. The leadership happened on the scoreboard.
“Everybody had a moment,” Paul George said after the U.S. came back to win. “At halftime, we did a lot of talking. But Melo took the initiative to put this game away. If he doesn’t make the shots that he made, we lose tonight.”
He finished with 31 points on 11/21 shooting, including nine threes. He carried the team almost by himself—Kyrie Irving added a dagger pull-up to ice it—and he passed LeBron James to become the all-time leading scorer for USA basketball. The whole night was a testament to everything he means to this year’s Team USA, and maybe everything that USA basketball has meant to Carmelo.
Over the course of his career, there have been many Melo traditions I’ve loved. There’s the bi-monthly ultimatum to the Knicks front office. There are his hats. There are his compulsive jab steps on the wing. There are the strange off the court ventures, like that time he guest-starred on Nurse Jackie. But no tradition is better than Carmelo in the Olympics, where he’s free to go nuts on unsuspecting nations from around the world. Everyone deserves to find someplace that makes them as spiritually content as the Olympics make Carmelo Anthony. This summer has sometimes felt like a commemorative tour to celebrate it all.
Last night he was asked what’s different in the Olympics. “In this situation,” he said. “It doesn’t call for me to put the team on my back. To have to create something with the ball in my hands every single play. I can just take my time, pick my spots, and play off of the guys on my team.”
Of course, even now, there a few different responses to Olympic Melo. The first is the obvious: why he can’t play like this all the time? The second is predictable: If the Knicks weren’t so miserable, he would. The third is more hopeful: He still has the talent, maybe the Olympics will show the NBA how to use him. And the final reaction is more cynical: Carmelo chased off the coaches who might have used him best, and he forfeited chances to find the situations that could’ve changed his story.
“The NBA is a much different game,” he continued last night. “A lot is required from myself, and other guys on [Team USA]. You have the ball in your hands more. They rely on you to do more scoring, more playmaking. On this team, we have the best players in the world. That’s what makes it fun.”
All the responses are fair. After all, Carmelo’s the one who’s demanded the ball in his hands, right? His NBA story is complicated. He’s been both a victim of circumstance and the author of his own fate.
But if last night made things official for Olympic Melo—all-time leading scorer, the heart of the team in 2016—I wanted to clarify something about this experience. Watching Carmelo Anthony on the national team isn’t great because all of these contradictions suddenly melt away when he puts on a USA basketball jersey. Watching him in Rio, or in London, or in Beijing, has been great because those contradictions will always be there.
He’s not perfect. He’s not LeBron. He may never find the right situation. But for those of us who have a soft spot for effortless stepback jumpers and watch collections, nitpicking Carmelo has always been beside the point. At its best, Carmelo’s game is as gorgeous and lethal as scoring gets. It’s been like that for 13 years. And, whenever history forgets this, we can point to the Olympics.