Accelerated growth plan

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At 30, Pierce's game is peaking: Those seven years have taught him how to exploit his All-Star teammates to their benefit as well as his own. On Wednesday, he looked a step ahead of Anthony, who -- to be fair -- was coming off a loss in New York on Tuesday, was playing without any of the Denver Nuggets' three injured point guards and was overwhelmed by the Celtics' renewed defense.

"I could have been the most crafty person tonight and still could have done nothing against four people,'' Anthony said after going for 11 points (3-for-13) in the Nuggets' 119-93 loss. "I've seen double teams a lot, but I've never seen a defense like that. Every time I touch the ball, I'm playing against my man, I'm playing against [Kevin] Garnett, I'm playing against [Kendrick] Perkins and I'm playing against Ray Allen, he's plugging in there too.''

A night like this should help complete Anthony's game, encouraging him to punish the defense by finding the open man. He was trying to do just that to the result of a team-leading six assists. But he didn't have to look far for a vision of his ultimate destiny, as he tried and failed to prevent Pierce from backhanding spectacular passes to Perkins underneath the basket. The Celtics' lead ballooned to 41 points in the second quarter as Pierce achieved an offensive balance that was almost Bird-like.

But it wasn't always so for Pierce, who finished with 26 points (on 15 shots), five assists and five steals in 30 minutes Wednesday. When George Karl was coaching Team USA during the 2002 FIBA World Championships, he criticized Pierce for being too much the finisher and not enough the playmaker. But over the last couple of years, Pierce has matured from a prolific scorer into an MVP-capable talent, and Anthony has the same potential.

"There have been other people that have compared Pierce to Melo,'' said Karl, the Nuggets' coach. "Pierce is one of the few guys in basketball who can put a triple-double up anytime he plays. We've tried to push Melo in that direction to be more rebound-oriented, more pass-oriented, more than just scoring. And in a lot of ways, Pierce showed him a clinic tonight.''

Here's another difference: The opportunity to play with Garnett and Allen arrived when Pierce was ready to exploit it. Of course, Pierce would have been happy to be teamed with older stars during his fifth year in the league -- the stage at which Anthony finds himself playing with Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby and Kenyon Martin. Would the younger Pierce have been capable of integrating and leading such an old team? Maybe not.

The Nuggets have no time for such musings. Both Camby and Iverson routinely remind Anthony that they need to win now, that this may be their last chance at a championship, and that Anthony needs to lead them whether he's ready or not.

"He went to the Finals with Philly,'' Camby said of Iverson, "and I went to the Finals with New York -- but not with as much talent as we have on this team. Me and Allen's window is definitely shortened and we feel fortunate to play with a great player like Carmelo.''

But ...

"We've got to do it now,'' Camby said. "Especially with our team, we're way over the luxury tax so who knows how this team is going to shape out over the next couple of years. Carmelo may go through times he doesn't even make the playoffs, so I don't want him dwelling back on the time where he'd be, like, 'I wish we did it when we had [these] players.' "

It becomes necessary after a setback like Wednesday's to recognize how far Anthony has come already. While LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were viewed as complete players in the 2003 draft, Anthony was seen as a 19-year-old version of Glenn Robinson. He has led the Nuggets to the playoffs each of his four NBA seasons while playing for USA Basketball in three tournaments -- and it's during those summers that his growth has been obvious. Remember how he was vilified on his way to the bronze medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens?

"He was put in a position as a young kid on that Olympic team in Athens along with LeBron and Amaré Stoudemire -- they were there because other players dropped out,'' said Jerry Colangelo, managing director of the USA Basketball men's senior team. "They were there way ahead of schedule, and their immaturity really came forth. Many people were negative on Carmelo because of that.''

That perception lingered as Anthony tried out for the 2006 FIBA World Championships. "There were some who felt he was borderline,'' said Colangelo, confirming that Anthony was in danger of not making the team. "He emerged as our best player. I gained a great deal of respect for him in regards to his game.''

By the time Anthony was suspended for 15 games last season for instigating a fight in New York with the Knicks, Colangelo knew the player well enough to support him.

"I told him it was not going to affect his situation with USA Basketball as long as you know you made a mistake and you've got to make it right,'' Colangelo said. "This past summer he stepped it up even more. He's a guy you really want on your side. I'm so happy in his development as a player and as a person.''

His coach recognizes how much Anthony's dedication to international basketball has hastened his development.

"I don't think anyone could have predicted how fast Melo has grown,'' Karl said.

Will that progress translate to the NBA? "They'll see that over a period of the next two to three years, how much further his game has come,'' said Colangelo. "We've seen it, just in my exposure to him because of USA Basketball. It's pretty apparent.''

The burden of Anthony's talent is that more is always expected from him. His performances last summer at the FIBA Americas tournament -- where he averaged a team-best 21.2 points and 5.2 rebounds in 19.4 minutes -- put him on the verge of becoming an elite player. But he admits that life was easier then than now.

"It was different there,'' Anthony said. "I could just run up and down the court, be wide open, knock down a shot when I had to, play D, rebound. I didn't have to do too much. This team [the Nuggets], it's a little bit different. I'm being doubled and tripled every night, and I've got to read that and find a way to beat that.''

So he and assistant coach Tim Grgurich review video of all his touches after every game to help him see the entire court, and to realize from afar when to fight through double teams and when to find the open teammate.

"I ain't nowhere near where I'm going to be at,'' Anthony said. "This is just the beginning for me. I'm only 23, so I got a long way to go.''

And yet, as Iverson, Camby and Karl will remind him, he needs to get there now.