Posted Apr 28 2012 11:10PM
MIAMI -- The Miami Heat entered the playoffs with negative momentum.
Incredibly, they were the 29th-ranked offense in April, scoring less than a point per possession over their final 16 games. Only the 7-59 Charlotte Bobcats were worse.
Now, it's not like anyone was writing the Heat off before the postseason began. And they did miss 19 total games from their big three in April. But 29th is still 29th. And 29th is really bad.
Twenty-four hours into the postseason though, the Heat's outlook seems quite a bit brighter, for two reasons. One, they absolutely destroyed the New York Knicks in Game 1 of their first round series. And two, Derrick Rose's torn ACL reduced the Chicago Bulls from championship contender to something less.
More than ever, the Eastern Conference is now the Heat's to lose. Specifically, it's LeBron James' to lose.
The Heat's 100-67 victory on Saturday was as much about their defense - and New York's inability to adjust to it - as their offense. They took Carmelo Anthony out of his rhythm early and often, forcing an incredible 27 turnovers out of the flustered Knicks.
But given their April struggles, this was an offensive explosion for Miami, one that started and ended with James, who scored 32 points on 10-for-14 from the field and 11-for-14 from the line.
"At one point it looked like he was beating us by himself," J.R. Smith said afterward.
James is coming off an incredible season, one that will likely earn him his third MVP award. And James says he's "a different player this year, a different person this year."
But even if he destroys the Eastern Conference on his way to The Finals, the scrutiny and the memories of last year's Finals will continue to weigh on him. Nothing short of a championship will silence the critics and James' own self-doubts.
With that in mind, Game 1 of the playoffs was still a very good start for James, who was aggressive from the jump. The switch was clearly in the "on" position Saturday afternoon, as James attacked the Knicks at full speed every time he got the ball after a turnover or missed shot. And when a defender slowed him down, he just worked them over to get the shot he wanted.
The Heat moved the ball well, but James mostly beat the Knicks one-on-one. He was assisted on just one of his 10 buckets, six of which were jumpers.
Dwyane Wade pitched in with 19 points, but nobody else on the Heat played all that well offensively. Chris Bosh was practically invisible, scoring just nine points on 3-for-7 shooting. Udonis Haslem's two jump shots looked pretty awful. And the bench shot 9-for-28.
Further, despite New York's 27 turnovers, the Heat had just seven fast break points. And only 12 of their 70 shots came near the rim.
To win a championship, the Heat will need more from their supporting cast. They will need Mike Miller and Shane Battier, who both shot less than 40 percent after the All-Star break, to knock down open shots. But having James play like he did on Saturday is Step 1. When he's in runaway-train mode, it becomes much easier for everything else to fall into place.
"We have to help our attackers get into the paint, get to the free throw line, get to the rim," Spoelstra said. "At the same time, our attackers have to help our shooters by getting them timely passes when they're open. And the ball has to move when people are open. We were able to get both of those tonight, and we have to make sure we're committed to that in the future."
Slowing down James will not get any easier for New York, who lost their best perimeter defender, Iman Shumpert, to a torn ACL in the third quarter on Saturday.
But this series -- and the postseason as a whole, really - isn't about the guys defending James. It's about his mentality. He's the best player in the world and needs to play like it every night. As great as it is that he's a willing passer looking to make the right play, he's most dangerous when he plays more like Kobe than Kidd. The only player in this league that can stop him is himself.
"As one of the leaders of this team, I just want to be sharp throughout," James said. "I'm not going to always play like I played tonight and go 10-of-14 from the field and be as efficient as I was tonight. But I'm going to make sure I'm in tune from start to finish and give us an opportunity to win."
An opportunity to win a game, and an opportunity to win a championship.
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