Last Tango with Carmelo?

With their Sunday win against the New York Knicks, the Miami HEAT strengthened their grip on the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference while pushing the Knicks a little further from the eighth and final playoff spot. There’s still a week and a half of shaking and shuffling in the standings, but as of Monday morning it’s more likely than not that this was the last that the HEAT will see of their northern rivals this season.

Normally that isn’t such a remarkable thing to say. The HEAT and Knicks will face one another in perpetuity. There’s always next year. Except for Shane Battier, there isn’t. Battier’s 13-year professional career will come to a close when he retires at the end of Miami’s playoff run. And that means we may have just seen the last dance for Battier and Carmelo Anthony.

Battier’s defensive game has always been at odds with what is and will always be a spectator sport. Anthony, along with Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, are some of the most prolific scorers the league has ever seen. Scoring is fun to watch. It’s even more fun when the great ones, so calm and graceful, score again and again as the crowd builds to a crescendo that hits alongside that one, impossible, timeout-forcing shot. Battier wants to take that away from the players, and by extension the crowd. He is a pestilence to the beautiful game.

And thanks to his current defensive scheme, if he can rob you of the opportunity to even see that elite scorer with the ball in his hands, then he’s all the better for it. If you tune in to watch the best scorers try to score, Battier wants to take that away from you.

“It’s always physical,” Battier said of his meetings with Anthony. “It’s not an easy matchup to ref. He’s holding me and I’m holding him. If you go by the letter of the law we would have both fouled out in the first five minutes. That’s the truth.”

It is, quite literally, a thankless job. Those who don’t have a vested interest in seeing the Miami HEAT win games aren’t thanking Battier for holding, elbowing and clawing his way to the ugliest-possible possession for the night’s opponent. Careful observers might respect the effort and the game plan behind it, but most will still want you to fail for the greater good of an entertaining product.

The scales of judgment are always weighted against you. Ball goes in? It’s your fault. Shot misses? Maybe you had something to do with it. Armed with his oversized scouting reports, Battier is a believer in process over results. But process is a weak shield against perception. There’s an obvious difference between this:

And this:

But for Battier, each possession is a small victory. Anthony shooting off the standstill. Battier’s arm extended between the shooter’s arms trying to block his view of the target. The math on your side for forcing a mid-range jumper.

Sometimes all the shots seem to go in as Anthony appears to be using Battier as a vessel for proving his own greatness. It’s the chance at making sure that doesn’t happen, and the risk of getting torched, that Battier knows he might never get again.

“I will miss the feeling of the butterflies before a game when I know I have to guard a Carmelo Anthony or a Kevin Durant or a Kobe Bryant,” Battier said. “There’s nothing in my life that will ever, ever replicate that feeling. I try to enjoy it as much as I can. It’s not a good feeling. But it makes you feel alive. It makes you feel like, ‘I better bring it today or I’m going to be embarrassed on national television’.

“That may be the thing that I’ll miss the most, outside of this locker room.”

If this truly was the final duel between Battier and Anthony, it will be a shame that it didn’t happen under healthier circumstances. Anthony has been troubled by a shoulder injury and didn’t look himself Sunday afternoon, but we still have the 660 total minutes and almost 1,300 possessions that he and Battier have shared the court together. In those minutes, Anthony has a Player Efficiency Rating of 22.30, a True-Shooting Percentage of 54 percent and an Offensive Rating of 102.3 – the first two marks being right around Anthony’s career averages with the third, a measure of his per-possession scoring, being well below.

We could dig into the individual games and try to declare a winner, but that’s not what Battier will remember. Fittingly for a process-oriented player, it’s the fight that endures.

“I’ve always enjoyed my battles with him in [Madison Square Garden], because it’s The Garden,” Battier said. “It smells like elephant poop and Frank Sinatra. There’s so much history when you walk in. It’s an event.

“I respect the hell out of Carmelo, he’s one of the three toughest guys I’ve had to defend in my career, and he’s put up big numbers on me and there have been nights when I’ve made him work, but I’ve always enjoyed it. It [would always] be a great battle.”

Now they go their separate ways for what might be the final time. Anthony will try to make the final push into the playoffs. Battier will try to, in his words, prove himself to himself and to his teammates as the HEAT search for their third-consecutive title. There will be little fanfare for the end of this 11-year war. And that’s just fine. There wasn’t that much to begin with.