Are the New York Knicks This Good or Do the Miami Heat Have Serious Problems?
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
It's an age-old turn of phrase that's caused problems for even the most powerful people in the world. And it proved just as tricky (yet apt) a tongue twister as ever for the Miami Heat on Thursday night in a 112-92 loss to the visiting New York Knicks.
As odd as it may be to see the defending NBA champions trumped by a torrential downpour of three-pointers—the Knicks hit 18-of-44 attempts from downtown—it's not exactly a new phenomenon for the 2012-13 edition of the Heat.
Not against New York, at least. Back on Nov. 2, the Knicks annihilated the Heat in Manhattan, 104-84, behind a staggering 19 long balls. The Heat hit "just" seven three-pointers of their own that night.
Except that result was written off as a fluke in some corners of the basketball world. The Knicks couldn't possibly hope to succeed in the long run by jacking up jumper after jumper from beyond the arc. Surely the Heat were helpless to stop a well-rested team playing its first game of the season, one aided by the emotions of a home crowd (and a city) still reeling from the effects of Superstorm Sandy.
If the most recent results are any indication, there's much more to it than that.
This time around, the Knicks didn't have the "benefit" of an adrenaline jolt from an event that dwarfed the importance of basketball. Rather, they were playing at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, where the Heat had yet to lose a game. There were plenty of Big Apple expats in the building, many of whom could be heard chanting in praise of their favorite team in the closing minutes.
But there was no home-court advantage at play for New York. Nor did the Knicks have Carmelo Anthony on whom to lean. A finger injury suffered the previous night against the Charlotte Bobcats sidelined the superstar, who put up 30 points when Miami and New York last met.
Not that the Knicks needed him or his scoring. Raymond Felton came to the rescue with 27 points, four rebounds and seven assists. J.R. Smith, Steve Novak and Rasheed Wallace combined for 43 of New York's 57 bench points.
As opposed to the 19 points from Miami's reserves, or even the 25 points combined from Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Not even a near triple-double (31 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists) by LeBron James could lift the Heat out of that abyss.
But as eye-opening as it was to see the Knicks go into Miami and emerge with a 20-point win without 'Melo (or Amar'e Stoudemire), the respective successes and failures of each squad were, in a way, predictable.
So far this season, the Knicks have lived and died (but mostly lived) by the long ball. New York came into the night as the most prolific (and third-most accurate) three-point-shooting team in the NBA. That accuracy has helped to make the Knicks offense the most efficient in basketball on a per-possession basis, regardless of it being the fourth-slowest offense in the league (per NBA.com's stats tool).
The Heat, on the other hand, have proven vulnerable to New York's particular strengths since the start of the season. Defensively, the Heat rank 29th in opponent three-point makes, 30th in attempts and 18th in opponents' field-goal percentage.
Miami also has a penchant for performing apathetically against inferior foes, particularly those missing key players.
The Heat needed late-game heroics to fend off the Cleveland Cavaliers, sans Kyrie Irving and, quite memorably, the San Antonio Spurs' B-team in late November. The Heat failed to save themselves from similar embarrassment against the Washington Wizards, who, without an injured John Wall, stunned Miami 105-100.
Now the Heat have "earned" another unfortunate feather for their ruffled cap. They came out flat against a shorthanded opponent and paid dearly for their disinterest. Their rotations were slow and their close-outs cursory, leaving the Knicks corps of gunners too wide open to miss.
Which Eastern Conference contender will be better at season's end?
Again, this is nothing new. The Heat's apparent disdain for the regular season has shown all too clearly in the league's 22nd-ranked defense. It's practically customary for teams with back-to-back title aspirations to lose focus early in the season, to play as if they're counting down the days until mid-April rolls around.
It's also nothing new for a team like the Knicks to burst out of the starting gate in a blaze of glory and leave the rest of the league oohing and aahing. More often than not, such scorching-hot squads flame out at some point.
Chances are, the Heat will be just fine. They'll slog through the ups and downs of the 82-game schedule before flipping the proverbial switch and playing championship-caliber defense when it matters most. And, chances are, the Knicks will cool off.
Nevertheless, Miami can be none too pleased with the "progress" it has made on the path back to Titletown, and New York needn't be discouraged by the unlikely nature of its early success. Perhaps these two teams will meet again in the postseason and the tables will be turned back in a more predictable alignment.
For now, though, the Knicks are the kings of the Eastern Conference.
And rightfully so. They've badly fooled the reigning ringleaders not once, but twice.
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