"The rule of three" suggests that good things come in trios. Thursday night's South Beach showdown is no exception. The surging Knicks, winners of nine of their past eleven contests, head to Miami for a prime-time Thursday night game with no shortage of star power.
The Heat's "big three," comprising of guards LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and forward Chris Bosh, will look to assert their legitimacy as Eastern Conference contenders against Amar'e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and overnight sensation Jeremy Lin, a trio that has risen to national prominence as well.
During Lin's exciting run, New York has earned signature wins against the Jazz, Hawks and the defending champion Dallas Mavericks. However, Thursday night may prove to be their biggest contest yet, and American Airlines Arena will be a pressure-packed proving ground for Lin and company.
It's hard to believe that a .500 team has garnered so much attention, yet a win tonight may catapult the Knicks towards continued success and perhaps an Atlantic Division title. Things certainly won't come easy against the 26-7 Heat, but here are five head-to-head matchups that the Knicks must win tonight in order to stay competitive.
The emergence of "Linsanity" took Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni from the hot seat to a hot shot.
Much of New York's recent accomplishments can be attributed to the offensive strategist, who found a way to balance Anthony's mid-range game with Lin's rapid-paced style of play.
Still, D'Antoni will need to stay composed and make inevitable adjustments against an aggressive, stout Heat defense. Erik Spoelstra will pull out all stops to curtail the Knicks' fast-break game, and if D'Antoni cannot find a way to incorporate all of his resources, his team won't stand much of a chance.
If Lin and Anthony are blanketed by defensive dynamos in James and Wade, D'Antoni will need to find a way to involve Stoudemire and perimeter swingman Steve Novak.
Nevertheless, Spoelstra will have his work cut out for him too, as Knicks center Tyson Chandler presents an interior threat that few of Miami's opponents have offered this year.
It may seem obvious, but the coach who can adapt on the fly and have their squad more prepared will take home the "W" tonight.
Thursday night will undoubtedly feature plenty of scoring from the backcourts of both teams, but stand-out PFs Stoudemire and Chris Bosh will play a huge role in determining the game's outcome.
Bosh, fresh off of a 7-14 effort against DeMarcus Cousins and the Kings, will look to alleviate the pressures that James and Wade will face. If Bosh can provide interior scoring, it will open up lanes for Miami's guards and the sensational Lin still lacks the defensive experience to consistently keep opponents out of the paint.
What's more significant, however, is the fact that Bosh grabbed 10 boards over the prolific Cousins. Stoudemire's 13.5 total rebounding rate and 16.51 efficiency rating highlights his importance down low for the Knicks, but if Bosh keeps the nine-year veteran in check on the glass, the Knicks will be in for a long game.
With Lin and Anthony considered slight defensive liabilities, the Knicks may struggle to defend the outside tonight. Stoudemire needs to do all that he can to prevent Miami from taking on an added dimension inside as well.
The battle in the interior manifests itself even more visibly in the matchup between centers Tyson Chandler and Joel Anthony.
Standing at just 6'9", Anthony is tremendously undersized, and thus, Chandler's physicality and height give him an advantage before even stepping onto the court. Still, Chandler will need to continue the offensive touch he's found since Lin took the reigns as starting one guard.
Much like James and Wade, Lin's performance tonight is contingent on having open lanes and a rebounding presence to secure second-chance opportunities. The perennial All-Star Chandler should outperform his counterpart, but to what extent? Since February 11th, Chandler's been held to single-digit scoring outputs just twice, and he has compiled five multi-block games.
If he can replicate this success tonight, an upset victory is certainly feasible for the Knicks.
Swept under the rug by his feel-good underdog story, his three-point prowess and his All-Star-esque cut moves, Jeremy Lin has struggled in perimeter defense.
Last night against Atlanta, second-year pro Jeff Teague racked up eighteen points against Lin. And on Monday, crosstown counterpart Deron Williams went for a whopping 38.
If James, Wade and Bosh perform as expected, New York won't be able to spare a fourth offensive outburst, yet gritty one guard Mario Chalmers shows all the signs of a breakout performance tonight.
Fresh off of a 20-point night in Sacramento, Chalmers, with his team-best 66.9 total shooting percentage (a statistic that factors in efficiency on three-pointers and foul shots), is ready to exploit Lin's defensive deficiencies.
Lin will put up points in bunches—that's all but guaranteed at this point—but if Chalmers can reciprocate, the "big three" becomes a "big four," something the Knicks will likely have no shot at stopping.
Regardless of these other factors, if Lin can ignore the hype and perform, he gives his team a solid chance to win.
The key for Lin is to quite simply be himself. If he becomes too reliant on his own shot, he becomes the offensive-minded point guard that fans vilified in Toney Douglas. But if he allows 'Melo to take total control on the offensive end, the Knicks may revert to their sub-.500 ways.
If Lin can continue to play with a chip on his shoulder, New York will come out aggressive and focused. But, after all, this is just one game—a pivotal game albeit—and Lin cannot afford to inflict too much self-imposed pressure.