By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Apr 27 2012 10:58AM
It's a first round series made for prime time, between two teams distant in the standings but about equal in hype. The Miami Heat are looking to get back to The Finals. The New York Knicks are looking for some lockout-season déjà vu.
It was 13 years ago when the eighth-seeded Knicks, after a lockout-shortened season, knocked off the top-seeded Heat in the first round, eventually reaching The Finals. Allan Houston's leaner bounced off and through the rim in the final seconds of the deciding Game 5, giving New York the second ever 1-8 upset.
This 2012 edition of Heat-Knicks is a 2-7 matchup. And while the comparison to '99 is good for storytelling, what happened in that series will have zero effect on anything that will happen in this one.
The Heat have looked far from invincible this season, and they're somehow more top-heavy than they were a year ago. But they still finished in the top six in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
The Knicks haven't won a playoff game in 11 years. But this is a different kind of Knicks team, one that wins with defense. Thanks to the addition of Tyson Chandler, they were the most improved defensive team in the league and ranked fifth on that end. And they went 18-6 under interim coach Mike Woodson to finish the season.
But does that put them on the Heat's level?
1. Can we take anything out of the three regular season meetings (all won by Miami)? Not really. The first meeting took place in January, before most of the world knew who Jeremy Lin was. The second meeting took place in February, in the middle of Linsanity. The third meeting was less than two weeks ago, but the Knicks were without Amar'e Stoudemire.
2. Is everybody healthy? The Knicks will be without Lin, who is recovering from surgery on his left knee and just began light on-court work this week. Dwyane Wade dislocated his left index finger on Saturday and Chris Bosh missed the last six games with a strained hamstring, but both practiced this week and should be good to go.
3. How much point guard will LeBron James play? That will probably depend on the effectiveness of Mario Chalmers. Chalmers will have a quickness edge on both Baron Davis and Mike Bibby. And if he can take advantage of that and knock down a few open shots, he will stay on the floor.
4. Are the Knicks better or worse with Amar'e Stoudemire? The numbers with Stoudemire aren't pretty. The Knicks were a minus-44 with him on the floor and a plus-255 with him on the bench, better both offensively and defensively.
5. Is it me, or have we not seen that many Heat highlights lately? It's not you. The Heat averaged 15.6 fast-break points per game through March, and averaged less than half that (7.7) in April.
It's no coincidence that the Heat offense has struggled as their fast-break points have gone down. Remarkably, they had the league's second-worst offense in April. Their stars obviously missed some games over the last four weeks, but this team is entering the playoffs completely out of rhythm offensively.
The Knicks switch picks quite a bit, so the Heat will look to use screens to get James and Wade into favorable matchups (Stoudemire and Steve Novak should be their primary targets). With Chandler likely to defend Chris Bosh primarily, the Heat may also try to draw him away from the basket.
Under Mike Woodson, the Knicks' offense has become very iso-heavy. So get ready to see a lot of Carmelo Anthony isolated on the wing against James. Stoudemire will get more of his shots on the weak side and off cuts than off traditional pick-and-rolls.
The Knicks need to take care of the ball, because live-ball turnovers will turn into quick and easy baskets for the Heat. They also need to move the ball, because the Heat will defend the strong side aggressively. The Knicks' shooters, Steve Novak and J.R. Smith, will get some open shots on the weak side if their teammates can get them the ball quickly.
James and Wade will share the ball pretty evenly in late-game possessions, and they'll be most dangerous when they're running the pick-and-roll together. They both do a good job of getting to the line down the stretch, but clutch success comes and goes for the Heat. They were incredible down the stretch against Boston and Chicago last year, but miserable in The Finals against Dallas.
On the other end of the floor, the ball will be in Anthony's hands. He attempted 90 shots in 95 clutch-time minutes this season (0.95 per minute). For comparison, Kobe Bryant attempted 122 shots in 176 clutch-time minutes (0.69 per minute). Even if the Heat defend Anthony aggressively, he may keep his eyes on the basket. If he does give the ball up, the game may be in the hands of J.R. Smith.
For the Heat, anyone not named Bosh, James or Wade is a wild card. The big three's supporting cast has struggled most of the year. Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, James Jones and Mike Miller all shot less than 40 percent after the All-Star break. And Udonis Haslem has had, by far, the worst shooting season of his career. If any of the above can find a rhythm in this series, the Heat will be in good shape.
Smith is one of the most volatile offensive players in the league. He has the ability to shoot the Knicks into a game and the fearlessness to shoot them right out of one. On the days that Smith gets hot, he gives New York another potent offensive weapon, making them difficult to defend.
The Knicks will finally win another playoff game, but that's it. Anthony won't get enough help offensively and Bosh will keep Chandler from being able to help much on James and Wade. Heat in five.
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