With the regular season all but over and the playoff picture crystallized, the Miami Heat still have a stake in the outcome of the next two days of basketball, despite being locked in at No. 2 in the East.
If LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the gang are smart, they're rooting for the Sixers to overtake the Knicks, ensuring that Miami would then be matched with the former. They'd most likely rather avoid an extended romp with New York, who have every opportunity to make things difficult on them right from the get-go.
Recent memory isn't much of a guide in this matter; this time last year, the Knicks weren't such a fearsome draw because they were piloted by a head coach who has no idea what that letter at the beginning of his last name was.
Furthermore, the Knicks—their shiny new all-star in particular—were a streaky bunch who had no idea how to execute the kind of offense that landed Mike D'Antoni the job in the first place.
The Heat, vaunted (at the time) for their defensive schemes, would in all likelihood have dispatched that Knicks team as quickly and painlessly (i.e. LeBron's preference) as they did the Sixers. New York just didn't have a viable foundation on which to gut out that kind of series, let alone mount some kind of upset.
Of course, that was then. The Knicks now have a guy on the bench, Mike Woodson, who is infinitely more versed in the ways of ball stoppage.
Exhibit A: the quickness with which he's retooled the defense around Tyson Chandler. While nobody would mistake them for some stalwart defensive machine, they no longer have that fatal flaw that was a complete and total reliance on offense.
And speaking of that Chandler guy, it's a safe bet that the Heat would prefer not to have him on their hands for an entire series (again), because look how that worked out for them last time. Nothing highlights Miami's lack of a low-post presence like an opponent with a bona fide dynamo under the basket. And insofar as any big man in the league could be said to have Miami's number, Chandler fits that description.
Meanwhile, the Knicks' potential for an offensive onslaught is no lesser this year; on the contrary, they're now a handful of crafty offensive players heavier with Iman Shumpert, Baron Davis and J.R. Smith. The kinds of scoring runs these guys, plus Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, are capable of sparking could very well cost the Heat a game or two, making the opening round far more challenging than LeBron and Co. would prefer it to be.
The Knicks are well-stocked with wing finishers, which would put a strain on LeBron, Wade and Shane Battier, and let's just say Stoudemire's shoulder and Chris Bosh's sternum would be close friends by the time this thing was done—no doubt still in Miami's favor.
Some would say the Heat would benefit from a solid challenge going in, one that the Sixers—months removed from looking like a threat—could not offer. Others would contend that the Heat are better off locked in a four- to five-game tuneup to shake the cobwebs off after their late-season power nap.
Some would go on to point out Miami's defining characteristic: their preference for the path of least resistance. This writer falls in the latter category.
The Heat could scarcely be considered to be in gear at the moment, and even though they tend to flip into "actually try" mode when the playoffs start, jumping right into an extended dogfight could cost them, especially against a team that can hurt them in so many ways.
The Knicks' and Sixers' similar records belie the fact that the former is on the upswing while the latter is, by most accounts, slumping, and the lesser team in the talent department.
Could the Knicks potentially take the series via upset? One shouldn't hold their breath, but if a man can hit a dove with a fastball, anything is possible. Should the Heat show off that famous lazy streak of theirs, New York would be in a much better position to capitalize than Philly.
All in all, Miami has ample reason to hope the road to the promised land leads them through Pennsylvania.