And so it comes down to this. The New York Knicks. The Miami Heat. And really, would you want it any other way?
The Knicks (36-30), by virtue of their victory tonight against the historically dreadful Charlotte Bobcats – the outcome of the affair was actually rendered moot when the Philadelphia 76’ers laid down against the Pistons in Detroit – locked up the Eastern Conference’s seventh seed and will open Round 1 of the NBA Playoffs in Miami on Saturday.
With the most tumultuous and unprecedented regular season in franchise history now concluded, we’re all about to find out what these Knicks are made of. The odds are surely not in New York’s favor. The Knicks and Heat met three times this season – with Miami victorious in all three contests, holding the Knicks to just 87.3 points-per-game on 39.0% shooting. Making matters worse, the ‘Bockers allowed the Heat to shoot 47.3% from the field and forfeited the turnover battle 17.3 to 13.7 per game, on average.
So what does New York need to do in order to pull off an upset?
For starters, these are not your
D’Antoni’s father’s Knicks. Under interim coach Mike Woodson, New York has gone 18-6 (that’s .750 for all you Math Olympians out there) and they’ve been doing it with a steady dose of Carmelo Anthony and stalwart defense. As noted recently by Mike Kurylo for The New York Times’ Off the Dribble Blog, 41% of the Knicks’ wins since the coaching change was made have been of the blowout variety (a margin of victory of at least 10 points). Between ‘Melo’s brilliance and the herculean defensive efforts of both Defensive Player of the Year candidate Tyson Chandler and rookie Iman Shumpert, the Knicks’ dominance isn’t all that surprising, but what no one could have predicted was that such a run would occur mostly without the services of Amar’e Stoudemire (back) and Jeremy Lin (knee).
Despite their underdog status, the Knicks are certainly capable of beating the Heat. The players believe it. The coaches believe it. And Pat Riley believes it, too.
In the end, defense, rebounding and taking care of the basketball (clichéd phrasing aside) will determine the outcome of this series. Both teams are flawed – ironically, the Knicks and Heat are both thin at the center and point guard positions – mostly due to their top-heavy, star-laden rosters, but from a pure match-ups perspective, New York isn’t as inept as some would have you believe.
We can expect to see ‘Melo and LeBron matched up against one another, which is of some concern for New York as far as foul trouble goes, but if history is any indication, the pair should once again bring out the best in one another. No reasonable person can argue that Anthony is a superior all-around player to James, but over the last 20 games, the Knicks’ SF has reestablished himself as a preeminent scorer in the NBA.
If ever there was a time that called for a superstar to “do this,” now is that time.
Loyal readers of this blog know that I’ve long-praised Shumpert’s on-ball defense, and in facing Dwyane Wade, the neophyte will surely have his work cut out for him in continuing to prove me right. The key for the Knicks is not stopping Wade – no one can do that – but rather it is holding him in check, especially during the fourth quarters. If New York can avoid having both James and Wade get hot at the same time, the games will be close. If they cannot, the series will be over very quickly.
The Knicks’ coaching staff has indicated to me that they intend to deploy Chandler to guard Miami’s enigma, Chris Bosh. It’s the right decision as Stoudemire has not shown an ability to defend his or any other position, and Bosh is the type of player that can really hurt you if you let him. Though leaving Amar’e to defend the Udonis Haslems and Joel Anthonys of the world may not be ideal, the risk of letting him deal with Bosh should far outweigh any breakdowns in help-defense over the course of the series.
More than any other player on the court, J.R. Smith is the series’ x-factor. If the Knicks can get “Good-J.R.” performances from the guard for at least four games – meaning decent shot selection, active defense and sneaky rebounding prowess – their chances of winning the series, or least forcing six or seven games, increases by a factor of ten. If the inconsistent Smith reverts to his bad tendencies, New York is dead. And quickly. Period.
I will have more thoughts on the series and a prediction tomorrow, but for the next 36 hours or so, Knicks fans have earned the right to sit back, enjoy the playoff birth and reflect on the roller coaster ride they’ve just been on. It’s not likely they’ll ever experience anything like it again.