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Carmelo Anthony makes the most of his return to the Garden

Mike Mazzeo

NEW YORK — The Portland Trail Blazers’ second bus was scheduled to depart Madison Square Garden at 10:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday night, but Carmelo Anthony sounded like a man who wanted to stay.

Anthony relished his return to 4 Pennsylvania Plaza — perhaps his final game in the building he once called home. He was showered with applause all evening long, and authored one more throwback performance for his adoring fans, scoring a season-high 26 points on 11-for-17 shooting to go along with seven rebounds in 31 minutes.

“The love was definitely felt tonight,” Anthony said after the reeling Blazers lost their fifth in a row, a 117-93 blowout at the hands of the New York Knicks.

The 35-year-old Anthony also made it known that he’d like to become the ninth player in Knicks franchise history to have his number retired.

“I don’t know. You’ve gotta ask them,” Anthony responded when asked if his No. 7 will be raised to the top of the iconic venue’s pinwheel ceiling. “I did glance up at the rafters a little bit today. They say in life, ‘You gotta envision.’ So I was definitely envisioning seeing it hanging up there.”

Anthony’s tenure in New York was filled with ups and downs, trials and tribulations. The apex came in 2012-13, when Anthony averaged 28.7 points and finished third in the MVP voting. The Knicks went 54-28 that season and won their only playoff series in the last two decades.

But New York never got over the hump with Anthony — and the beleaguered franchise remains stuck on two NBA championships while facing a massive climb toward contention.

Anthony’s isolation-heavy style bothered many. And the losses and coaching changes began to pile up, as did the controversy—from his Jeremy Lin jealousy to getting ripped by overmatched executive Phil Jackson while trying to flourish in Jackson’s antiquated triangle offense.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 01: Carmelo Anthony #00 of the Portland Trail Blazers is guarded by Frank Ntilikina #11 of the New York Knicks during the first half of their game at Madison Square Garden on January 01, 2020 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)
The Blazers' Carmelo Anthony works against the Knicks' Frank Ntilikina on Wednesday in the Garden. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)

Still, Anthony was willing to take on the challenge of trying to win in The Big Apple — and all the criticism that followed — endearing himself to the masses as a result.

“I enjoyed it,” Anthony said of his six and a half seasons with the Knicks. “I’ve grown. I think being in this city makes you a specific type of person — not a basketball player — and for me to embrace that and want that, I think that’s why I got the love I got tonight. And I will continue to get that from this city.”

Tickets for Melo’s return weren’t cheap, going for $200 a pop on the secondary market.

“What the hell’s going on here?” Damian Lillard jokingly asked reporters in the Blazers’ locker room before the game. “They’re waiting for Hoodie Melo.”

“He misses you guys,” C.J. McCollum added. “He told me that.”

Anthony was cheered from the moment he took the court for pregame warmups. Rousing ovations followed when he was introduced as part of the starting lineup, when he first touched the ball and when he made his first basket on a turnaround jumper.

“Welcome Home Carmelo We Missed You,” one sign read.

Anthony even wore a firefighter outfit to The Garden with “Manhattan R.L.F.D.” on his back.

Once a Knick, always a Knick.

He caught fire in the third quarter, hitting four consecutive shots en route to scoring 11 points in the period. And watching him make basket after basket, it was easy to think back to his 62-point performance at MSG on Jan. 24, 2014.

“Back to the old days? See, you’re aging me now,” Anthony joked. “I was just playing basketball. I think you guys have been seeing those moves for a long time.”

But Portland’s offense sputtered with Anthony on the bench to start the fourth, and the game quickly turned into a blowout. The Blazers sit at 14-21, ninth in the Western Conference. They’re without Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins and Rodney Hood, and have been porous on defense.

Mitchell Robinson, drafted by the Knicks with the second-round pick they acquired when they traded Anthony to Oklahoma City, dominated in the pick-and-roll and went 11-of-11 from the field.

“We just got outplayed,” Lillard said. “Whatever they wanted to do, they did it.”

“We just gotta go through it and figure it out,” Anthony said. “Nobody’s going to figure it out for us.”

The Blazers were a desperate team when they took a flier on Anthony. And Anthony was desperate to get back in the NBA after being out of a job and with his best days behind him. Overall, he has been a net positive for Portland, averaging 16.2 points and posting a plus-0.4 efficiency rating in 20 games — even if his defense remains subpar.

“I always believed in myself,” Anthony said. “I don’t think people understand how difficult that was [for me to come back] and then the fight that I had within myself to be at this point talking to y’all.”

Anthony said he was prepared for anything from Knicks fans in his return. But they made their feelings clear by showing him love — and the feeling was mutual. No, there was never a title. But maybe there will be a jersey retirement ceremony in the future.

“I wish we would’ve won, to be honest with you,” Anthony said. “I just wanted to come in here and have a good game and just play basketball. But of course being back there on that court is special.

“It’s special,” Anthony repeated, with a laugh.

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