The Miami Heat after a 66-game, lockout-shortened season, have finally managed to reach the playoffs. All eyes will be on them to see if they can not only reach the finals for the second straight year, but actually emerge victorious. There is no question about it: The pressure is on this team to win it all this year.
If they don’t, the “Big Three” experiment will be deemed a failure. Most NBA experts already believe that there will be some major personnel shifts in South Beach before next season.
With that in mind, the Heat will begin the playoffs by hosting the New York Knicks, a team brimming with talent and a newfound confidence after the recent offensive (and defensive) exploits of Carmelo Anthony.
Some say the Knicks have a strong chance to beat the Heat, others say that they will just be a warm up for Miami and the series will not go past five games. Here is my breakdown of their upcoming series.
The Case for the Knicks
The Knicks have the one player that most people feel can give the Heat some real problems: Tyson Chandler. Chandler—who is averaging 11.3 PPG, 10.0 RPG and 1.4 BPG—is currently the front-runner to win his first Defensive Player of the Year award, and was an indispensable weapon for Dallas against Miami in the NBA Finals last year.
His length and shot-blocking kept Dwyane Wade and LeBron James out of the paint, and his alley-oop dunks provided the Mavericks with a frontcourt presence that the Heat still can’t match. If Chandler can have a strong defensive series against the Heat and once again keep Wade and James shooting contested jumpers from 20-feet out, the Knicks have a real chance.
Then there is Carmelo Anthony who will not be the best player on the floor, but will definitely be the best pure scorer on either team. Anthony’s exploits over the last 10 games for the Knicks have been sensational. He’s averaging 31 PPG in the month of April and scored 42 in the previous contest against the Heat.
Anthony has always played exceptionally well against James and is one of the few players in the NBA that James has a hard time guarding. If the games are tight down the stretch, Anthony is the most dangerous player on the floor. He’s one of the league's elite closers.
The Knicks also have an improved their defense since coach Mike Woodson replaced Mike D’Antoni, and currently rank fifth in the league in defensive efficiency. They have depth and offense off the bench with J.R. Smith and Steve Novak.
If these guys are hitting their threes, they could give Miami some major problems defending the perimeter. Also, Amar'e Stoudemire has played well since returning from injury.
The Case Against the Knicks
Although the Knicks have improved defensively, no one will confuse them with the Chicago Bulls. They are still only 12th in the league in points allowed and 17th in the league in rebounding. If they can’t control the boards, they will miss the opportunity to exploit one of the Heat’s key weaknesses.
They are only 22nd in the league in assists and it’s not a surprise. They have a lot of one-on-one players like Anthony and Smith who just want to hoist the shot rather than passing it around for the best look. That lack of cohesiveness could be problematic against Miami, who contest shots and trap the ball exceedingly well.
The Knicks have firepower, but they are undisciplined and lack an ability to discern a “good” shot from a very bad one. They will shoot a 24-footer with 6 seconds still on the shot-clock. That lack of offensive patience will not serve them well against the Heat's defense or their explosive transition game.
There are also questions about chemistry on the team. There is a belief that Stoudemire and Chandler do not play well together, and some of those concerns resurfaced in a 98-90 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers when Amar'e and Tyson did not look comfortable on the court together.
Tellingly, Amar'e had his best game since his back injury against Atlanta, the game Chandler missed. If they cannot coexist together in this series, it will make them that much easier to defend for Miami.
Another issue the Knicks have is turnovers. They average the second most turnovers a game in the league (16.2) and that just will not get it done against a Miami team that turns giveaways into offense quicker than any other team. Plus, they were 0-3 against Miami this season.
The Case for the Heat
The Heat have homecourt advantage and face a 7-foot reminder of their famous flameout in the NBA Finals last year, so they should be fully engaged throughout the series. LeBron James has simply been playing out of his mind lately, averaging 29.5 PPG, 6.8 RPG and 4.9 APG in April. He is expected to have a strong series against a Knicks team that has no real defensive answer for him.
The Heat were struggling at the defensive end, but appear to have righted the ship since the overtime loss to the Bulls on April 12. Since that time, the Heat have only given up 82.6 PPG and seem much more active defensively.
Unlike last season, the Heat will begin the playoffs relatively healthy. Granted, Wade did have the finger dislocation against the Wizards and Bosh has been suffering with a mild hamstring injury, but both say they will be ready to play when the playoffs start this weekend.
One position that the Heat are weak at is point guard, but this is not a the strength of the Knicks either with Jeremy Lin still injured and Baron Davis in as his savvy (though not particularly threatening) replacement.
The Heat seem to have worked out the chemistry issues that plagued them at times last year in the playoffs, and that gives them an advantage against a Knicks team that still feels as though it’s searching for an identity.
The Case against the Heat
They are playing against one of the most dangerous three-point shooting teams in the NBA and their three-point defense is 24th best in the league, which is not great. If the Knicks are stroking it from distance, the Heat could be in for a long series.
There are still serious questions about the supporting cast and how much they will contribute in the playoffs. Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller and Shane Battier have simply not been able to hit shots with much consistency since the All-Star break.
If that trend continues in this series, the Knicks will just pack the paint and force Wade and James to beat them from the field. The Heat’s shooters must hit shots to keep defenses honest. If not, the Heat will be vulnerable in the series.
The Heat really don’t have a center that can matchup with Tyson Chandler. Although Heat center Dexter Pittman has shown signs of development in the last few games, he’s still very raw and will probably not see much playing time in the playoffs unless Ronny Turiaf and Joel Anthony are hurt.
Consequently, one wonders how the Heat plan to counter Chandler’s activity in the paint. If he’s in the middle, blocking shots as well as James and Wade’s drives to the basket, it could be trouble for Miami.
Another player who has not done well since the All-Star break is Chris Bosh. Maybe it’s due to the injury, but he was averaging just 16.3 PPG, 8.8 RPG and shooting 45 percent. Good numbers, but you’d like to see him shoot better and rebound a bit more in this series, especially since he will be matched up against a healthy Stoudemire.
Both Anthony and James enter this series on a serious roll, so that will be the matchup that everyone will be watching. But what I want to know is: How do the Heat contend with Tyson Chandler, and how do they prevent the Knicks from burying them in a deluge of three-point shots?
If the Heat’s shooters are on in the series, it could be a Heat rout. But if the Knicks can keep the Heat's shooters in check while playing strong straight-up defense on Wade with Iman Shumpert, they could make the series go the distance.
I'm picking the Heat in five. I was originally tempted to say Heat in six, but after further reflection on the season series, I don't remember the Heat ever really sweating much during those games. I always felt that once they cranked up the defensive intensity they were able to overcome the Knicks' offensive flourishes.
I think the Heat are a more cohesive team who will give the Knicks their utmost attention once the series begins. The Knicks' erratic nature and lack of discipline will help fuel some of Miami’s key transition plays and New York will eventually fall as a result.