Posted May 10 2012 10:52AM
MIAMI -- If you were to ask the Magic 8 Ball if the Miami Heat are better than they were a year ago, its response would have to be Ask again later.
The Heat are through to the conference semifinals after dismissing the New York Knicks in five games. But it's still unclear what Miami can take away from a series against a unique and short-handed opponent.
"We knew that we'd better be on top of our game," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after his team closed the series with a 106-94 victory in Game 5. "We'd better, not only compete and play at an incredible effort and force level, but we'd better play well, because this is one of the hottest teams in the league, despite a lot of the adversities that they'd been in."
Yes, the Knicks had the Heat's attention from the start, surely more than the Sixers would have. Carmelo Anthony is one of the most dangerous scorers in the league, capable of winning a game or two by himself.
But really, the Knicks were a weird team that just finished a really weird season. They had two offense-only stars and a top five defense. They were the streakiest team in the league. And by the end of the series, they were missing their three best guards.
The Heat played terrific defense for most of the five games. They snuffed out the Knicks' pick and roll and made the league's best 3-point shooter, Steve Novak, a complete non-factor. They took away the Knicks' strengths, which is always priority No. 1.
But they're not going to see another offense like this. So many New York possessions, once the initial action was stopped, quickly turned into isolations for Anthony or J.R. Smith. And while Anthony can make shots from anywhere, isolation basketball does not really challenge a team defensively.
"We need to have a nice flow in which everyone touches the ball," Tyson Chandler said of the Knicks' offensive priorities next season. "We've got to make sure we get other guys involved."
For the Heat, there were things to clean up from game to game. Pick-and-roll defense after Game 2. Turnovers after Game 3. Rebounding after Game 4. They did well in not making the same mistakes two games in a row, and Game 5 was their best performance both on the glass and in transition.
It's also a positive that LeBron James was aggressive from start to finish. At this point in the postseason, he clearly has the right mindset. But the Knicks didn't exactly force James and the Heat to dig deep or make any real adjustments. So is there any significant takeaway from a five-game series against an inferior opponent?
"You can't get to the second round," Udonis Haslem said, "without winning the first."
Well, that's true. And the Heat did stay healthy, so they've got that going for them. But the Indiana Pacers are a much different team than the Knicks, bigger and more balanced on both ends of the floor.
"You have to take it one step at a time," Spoelstra said. "But this next series, I'm sure, will feel like it's played in a cage instead of a basketball court. It will be extremely physical."
There's no doubt that Indiana is a step up from New York. To some, the Pacers may have been the No. 3 seed by default, but they were one of only four teams to finish in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency this season. They're better than you think.
"Miami-Indiana, from the outside, when it comes to hype won't be the same," Dwyane Wade said. "But I think us, as a team, know that this team right here is a better team. They've proved that all year. So it's going to be a tougher series for us."
Tougher, yes. But will the Pacers really give the Heat something to think about? Will Spoelstra be forced to alter the game plan at any point during the course of the series? Or will this just be another series where the biggest concern is if Miami can keep its foot on the pedal?
Assuming the Heat get through the Pacers, is there a team on the other half of the Eastern Conference bracket that poses a serious challenge for Miami? The Celtics and their 24th-ranked offense?
With the Chicago Bulls missing Derrick Rose, the Heat are a much better team than anyone left in the East. It will likely be another six weeks before we know if they're better than they were last year.
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