The New York Knicks and Miami Heat are the two best teams in the Eastern Conference right now, and are sharing a tie for the top spot, with the Knicks at No. 1. They play each other in Miami on Thursday, with the Heat looking to get their revenge following a 104-84 loss at Madison Square Garden on November 1.
No matter who wins on Thursday night, the fans will have a preview of this season's Eastern Conference Finals.
It may be a bit early to say that, but just look at how well the Knicks and Heat have been playing. Miami's Big Three are doing fine work, as per usual, and the Knicks have responded remarkably well to coach Mike Woodson's defensive system.
The crazier part is that what fans have seen from the Knicks is just the tip of the iceberg. Second-year guard and top defender Iman Shumpert is expected back as early as next month, and star big man Amar'e Stoudemire is expected back soon.
And yet, New York was able to defeat Miami without these two key players, who will make the team even better upon their return.
The fact of the matter is that right now, no other Eastern Conference team can overcome either the Knicks or the Heat on a run to the Conference Finals. Looking at what the playoff picture would be if the season ended today, any team the Knicks or Heat faced other than each other would be a walk in the park.
The Brooklyn Nets have struggled against elite teams all season long, and do not have the depth or experience to keep up with either team in the long run. They may have a fighting chance if Brook Lopez stays healthy, but he is injured now, and there's no telling how much of an issue his health will become down the stretch.
Regarding the rest of the teams in the playoff picture, they are either too old, too young or just don't have what it takes to make a big run in the playoffs. That leaves New York and Miami as the last two teams standing. A Conference Finals matchup between these two would be more than just a series, but an all-out war on the hardwood.
The truth is that the Heat and Knicks are more than just rivals. These two teams flat out hate each other. They faced each other in the playoffs four consecutive years, from 1997-2000.
Just how much do the two teams hate each other?
Well, there were two legendary brawls, one between Charlie Ward and P.J. Brown in 1997 and one between Larry Johnson and Heat center Alonzo Mourning in 1998. The first fight caused a melee and resulted in suspensions for some key Knicks players, such as Patrick Ewing, John Starks, Allan Houston and Johnson, and Miami won the series.
1998 just saw one-game suspensions for Johnson and Mourning. The Knicks won that series, and won again the next season thanks to Allan Houston's famous buzzer-beater. Over those four years, the Knicks had a 3-1 advantage in terms of series won, leading to an ever-brewing rivalry that rivals Lakers-Celtics.
Not only did James spurn the Knicks with his "Decision," but he chose to play for their sworn and mortal enemy. If the rivalry was losing fireworks at that point, it got plenty of fire once James headed to Florida.
Throw in the fact that Miami has won the season series against the Knicks 5-2 since James came aboard, plus last season's playoff series victory, and the stage is set for a fine Eastern Conference Finals.
It would feature two of the NBA's best players in James and Carmelo Anthony going head-to-head, with Anthony having championship aspirations of his own. More importantly, it would feature a defensive Knicks team that currently ranks eighth in points allowed and has already handily defeated Miami once this season.
Seeing as how the Heat have struggled on defense thus far, ranking 28th in rebounding and 21st in points allowed, winning this series would be anything but guaranteed.
Thus, fans should tune in to this game on Thursday night. Not only is it a rivalry game, but it is sure to be a close contest with some tough and physical defense—not to mention some trash talking every now and again.
It will also be the precursor to an epic Eastern Conference Finals—one that the Knicks want badly and will be fully prepared for.