Put Carmelo Anthony in a USA uniform, have him play the four, let him play off of other NBA stars, and you have the most lethal weapon in Olympic basketball history, and an entirely different player than the one that has played for the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks over the last 13 seasons.
On Wednesday, FIBA Melo was at his best, leading the U.S. to a 98-88 win over Australia in what was, by far, the toughest test the team has faced here. Anthony scored a game-high 31 points, shooting 9-for-13 from 3-point range. In the process, he became the all-time leading scorer in U.S. Men's Olympic history, passing former USA teammate LeBron James.
The record came quickly. With Anthony needing 11 points to tie James, he was there less than five minutes into the game. But the U.S. couldn't get stops and needed everything Anthony was giving them to keep pace with Australia. He broke James' record and put the U.S. ahead by two with a 3-pointer with 1:09 to go in the first quarter.
He took it upon himself to lead us. There's a reason why he's been doing this for many years. He's special and we don't get this without him.
– Team USA's Paul George, on Carmelo Anthony
While his teammates were trying to push him toward the record, Anthony didn't want to force it.
"Tonight was just one of those nights where I wanted to let the game come to me, take the shots that were given to me, take the open shots, and kind of just play basketball," Anthony said afterward. "At the end of the day, I was in my zone, I was playing basketball. My teammates found me when I was open. I didn't try to go get it. Everything happened within the flow of the basketball game and that's the best time to go get it."
And that's the story of Anthony's career with the national team. He doesn't have to force anything.
USA Basketball allows Anthony to be a finisher, and doesn't ask him to be a creator. He's not James, but rather James' complement. And even with James sitting out these Olympics, it's never been clearer that Anthony is at his best when he's benefiting from the attention paid to others.
"I like to adjust to my situation," Anthony said. "In this situation, it doesn't call for me to put the team on my back and have to create something every play, and the ball is in my hands every single play. I can just kind of space out, take my time, pick my spots, and play off the guys that I have on my team. That's all it's been. It's no different game. It's just a matter of picking your spots and playing off your teammates."
At the end of the day, I was in my zone, I was playing basketball. My teammates found me when I was open. I didn't try to go get it. Everything happened within the flow of the basketball game ...
– Team USA forward Carmelo Anthony
Anthony is also a serious matchup challenge when he's playing the four, which he has done almost exclusively with the national team. In fact, over the last two Olympics, Anthony has played more center than small forward. His size allows him to either punish smaller players inside, while his skills and footwork allow him to punish bigs on the perimeter.
Australia started a frontline of Aron Baynes and Andrew Bogut, with Baynes matched up with Anthony. The size advantage should have helped Australia on the glass, but it was actually offensive rebounds on the USA's first two possessions that produced Anthony's first six points. With Baynes in the paint, Anthony was open behind the 3-point line off tip-outs from DeMarcus Cousins and Paul George.
The U.S. finished with 21 offensive rebounds and 23 second-chance points on Wednesday. They won the battle on the glass and they clearly won the matchup at the four. The only baskets Anthony had that weren't assisted were on isolations against Baynes or David Andersen, another slow-footed big.
"You can't guard him with a big fella," Kevin Durant said of Anthony.
Durant struggled on Wednesday, shooting just 4-for-16. But Anthony picked up the slack and matched his 14 first-quarter points with another 14 in the fourth. His personal, 8-2 run gave the U.S. the lead for good and he followed it up with two more threes to help keep the USA's 48-game winning streak alive.
Rio Olympics: USA vs. Australia
"Melo initiated it to put this game away," George said. "If he doesn't make the shots that he made, we lose tonight. His shots were timely and big. He took it upon himself to lead us. There's a reason why he's been doing this for many years. He's special and we don't get this without him."
For Australia coach Andrej Lemanis, it was about losing sight of Anthony, whether he was being guarded by a traditional big or not.
"There was just times where we had some mental lapses," Lemanis said, "where we got sucked into the ball and we didn't need to, and they kicked out for open threes. Once he's feeling it, particularly with this FIBA 3-point line (22 feet all around), he's tough to deal with in that situation."
And he doesn't need to demand the ball. It finds him and then it finds the bottom of the net. Anthony needs help to be as efficient as he is with the national team (he has an effective field goal percentage of 57.4 percent in Olympic competition, 66.3 percent in 2012 and 2016), but others wouldn't be nearly as efficient in the same situation.
"The NBA is a much different game," Anthony said. "On this team, we have the best players in the world, so that's what makes it fun for myself."
It's what makes him "FIBA Melo", the most prolific scorer in U.S. Olympic history.
John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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