NEW YORK -- Carmelo Anthony hit 17 shots in a 45-point effort, but the one that didn't count was the one the Knicks will remember.
Thursday's 109-106 loss to the Houston Rockets left another scar for a New York team that is struggling to win at home and compile the defensive efforts that made it an Eastern Conference contender last season. Anthony's tally was an NBA high this season but wasn't enough to overcome James Harden's 36 points for a variety of reasons.
Here are three thoughts on the game:
• A bitter pill to swallow: Down 107-104 with five seconds remaining, the Knicks appeared to have tied the game and earned a free throw when Anthony hit a circus three-pointer and drew a foul from Harden. The problem was the whistle blew before Anthony launched the shot. Anthony, who was visibly miffed with the officials most of the night, protested to no avail. When asked about it afterward, he carefully skirted the question.
"My thoughts don't mean anything at this point in time," Anthony said. "It's just a tough call and we have to move on. I saw the replay once. I don't need to see it again."
Coach Mike Woodson appeared less upset about the basket not counting, but was more displeased that the officials refused to review the call.
"I thought it was close enough to have that play reviewed and they never even entertained it," Woodson said. "Nothing we can do about it now, but I thought it was reviewable."
Here is the play in question:
The Knicks earned a solid, if ugly win on Wednesday at Atlanta in a game that showed flashes of what made them dangerous last season. Thursday's performance offered promise, but still dropped New York to 1-4 at home and 3-5 on the season. Woodson emphasized that the problem remains consistency, an issue, he acknowledged, that is his to solve.
Denying Anthony an opportunity at a go-ahead four-point play was merely the final offense on a night in which he felt preference was given to a hobbled Harden, who routinely collapsed to the floor throughout the game and wound up shooting 18 free throws; Anthony shot 11.
"We didn't put [Harden] on the line, they put him on the line," Anthony said. "Tonight it felt like I had to have blood to get a call."
• Give Bargs a chance: The Knicks' offseason trade for maligned big man Andrea Bargnani was met with predictable vitriol, but the former No. 1 pick showcased superb mid-range offense and, get this, tough post defense on Thursday. Is this game an outlier? Perhaps, but even the mercurial Knicks fans loudly cheered a player they booed at the home opener. The Italian 7-footer finished with 24 points on 9-of-12 shooting, including 3-for-3 from three-point range, and forced a miserable offensive night from Dwight Howard.
"I thought he played his butt off," Woodson said of Bargnani. "We tried to protect him early to keep him in the game and then we let him play. He took a couple charges, he blocked a couple shots. He was solid."
Whether he was blocking his shots, taking charges or fouling him hard, Bargnani rendered Howard ineffective the entire night. The prized Houston big man had only one field goal, and five of his seven points came from the free-throw line.
Bargnani won't soon shed his reputation as a lackadaisical defender, but his performance against Howard was a needed boost for a team already lacking balanced post players. Tyson Chandler is still several weeks away from returning, Amar'e Stoudemire logged five listless minutes, and the reportedly disgruntled Kenyon Martin is there primarily for defensive energy.
Should he play more games like he did on Thursday, Bargnani may finally endear himself to the critical fans of New York, most of whom did not welcome his arrival from Toronto. Even if he has a bloated contract and attitude questions, Bargnani is currently the only savior for a thin frontcourt. With more valiant defensive efforts, the Knicks will have the versatile big man that they once sought with Stoudemire.
• Omer Asik, where art thou? All facets of the Rockets' defense could use help, but Asik was notably absent from the post all game. After playing only six minutes on Wednesday in Philadelphia, Asik logged his first DNP of the season in Houston's win. The big Turk's role has been tenuous since the Rockets acquired Howard in July, and on Thursday the Houston Chronicle reported that Asik is seeking a trade. The loss of backup big man Greg Smith in the first half could complicate Asik's role.
It also may not. Smith collapsed in a heap after an ugly collision with Anthony, awkwardly twisting his right knee, but Asik didn't check into the game after Smith exited to the locker room. Houston signed Asik to a back-loaded three-year, $25 million contract in 2012, but the big man sat stoically at the end of the bench for the entire game as the Rockets went with a small lineup when Howard was resting.
The unfortunate reality for Asik is that the Rockets may not need him, but they could end up keeping him as an insurance policy -- even if he is expensive. Regardless of Smith's diagnosis, Asik appears to be in for a frustrating stretch with the team that promised him big money and big minutes just last summer.