NEW YORK -- Carmelo Anthony said the plan was always to return from his finger injury on Sunday.
It didn't matter that Sunday's opponent happened to be his former team, the Denver Nuggets, the same team he forced into trading him to the Knicks in a blockbuster deal in February 2011.
"It didn't have nothing to do with that," Anthony said in the Knicks locker room following his 34-point outburst in the Knicks' 112-106 victory over the Nuggets at Madison Square Garden. "I don't got no hard feelings towards them."
It just happened to work out that Anthony's return from an injury to his left middle finger after a two-game absence coincided with Denver's arrival in New York, which owns the best record in the Eastern Conference (15-5).
Despite tape on that left middle finger, Anthony overcame a 1-for-6 start to his day and helped the Knicks take control in the fourth quarter, scoring 11 of the team's 32 points in the period as he abused former Knick Danilo Gallinari down the stretch.
After the Knicks answered an 8-0 Nuggets run that put Denver up 88-80, the Knicks ran off a 12-0 run of their own -- sparked by back-to-back Steve Novak 3- pointers -- to go ahead for good, 92-88. Anthony later hit a three of his own to make it 97-90.
He hit back-to-back baskets on a jumper and a drive to push the lead to 110-104 with under two minutes to go.
"He has been amazing throughout the entire season," said Knicks center Tyson Chandler, who had another strong game with 15 points and 12 rebounds. "Tonight was no different. He is playing at an MVP level right now."
Knicks coach Mike Woodson, whose team improved to 8-0 this season at the Garden and 19-1 here overall, agreed with Chandler's assessment.
"Melo is playing at such a high level," Woodson said. "There is no question he is one of the MVP candidates in this league. He has been great for us. His teammates rely on him and he is relying on guys around him to help him. This is the beauty of our team right now."
Nuggets coach George Karl was asked about Anthony prior to the game, and whether he saw a different player, a different person than the one he coached in Denver.
Anthony said before the season began that he was willing to sacrifice his own scoring in favor of more balanced team scoring and a renewed commitment to defense. He said his experience with the gold-medal winning Olympic team had made him a new man.
"He's always done that," Karl said of Anthony before the game. "He's always had the skills to do it. It's the commitment and consistency of doing them and putting them in every game.
"I think what I see is, a team that, when it gets down, and in the fourth quarter, close games, they’re playing with a kind of mad-dog personality. They’ve got great defensive hands. They’ve got a great shot blocker in the middle. They’ve got Jason Kidd, who knows how to disrupt the best player on the court. Their pick-and-roll defense is first class."
Anthony and Karl feuded down the stretch of Melo's tenure in Denver, but Karl believes that playing alongside NBA champions like Kidd and Chandler can only have a positive effect on Anthony's attitude.
"I feel that Melo’s going to win a championship someday," Karl said. "Scoreboard and numbers and stat sheets aren’t important. It’s the team scoreboard and the intangibles that make winners champions."
Whether Anthony and the Knicks have a chance to challenge for that championship this year remains to be seen.
For now, Anthony is playing at a very high level, hand injury notwithstanding.
He says he isn't worried about MVPs or championships or even his old team, just about winning basketball games, especially those at Madison Square Garden.
"It is another game on my schedule this season," he said. "The emotion is gone. It is another game on the schedule that we definitely wanted to win. We want to defend our home court."
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Photo: Daily News