Don't look now, but the New York Knicks have turned Miami's finest into South Beach's greatest eyesore.
LeBron James and the Miami Heat weren't supposed to fall to a Carmelo Anthony-less Knicks team. Heck, they weren't supposed to fall to an Anthony-led Knicks squad either. But they did. In the most eye-gouging of fashions, no less.
On two separate occasions, in two different buildings, boasting the likes of two distinctively dissimilar rotations, we have watched the Knicks trounce the Heat. Not narrowly defeat or comfortably surpass, but butcher.
New York has now won two games against the reigning NBA champs by 20 points apiece, none more telling than the Knicks' most recent victory on Miami's turf.
It was a game that saw New York thrive in the face of adversity; a game that saw Raymond Felton lead a team down its best player to victory over the most formidable entity in the league.
More importantly, however, it was a game that saw the Knicks expose everything that's currently wrong with the James-captained Heat.
Had this been an isolated incident, it would have been something most were willing to overlook. Sure, New York had carved up Miami once before, but the Heat were 11-3 since that point. One more hiccup could have gone unnoticed.
Except this wasn't a sequestered affair; this wasn't one team simply struggling to find an answer against another team for the second time. Instead, it was the latest in a series of troubling events that have left many questioning whether the Heat are still a favorite to defend their crown.
Journey back three games and you'll come to find that Miami struggled to put away a depleted San Antonio Spurs team. And when I say "depleted," I mean completely decimated, devoid of any and all consistent talent.
That bout took place on the Heat's home court as well. The Spurs were without Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Stephen Jackson, Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker.
San Antonio was without arguably its six best players.
Though that should have meant the Heat cruised to victory, it took a James-led spurt and Ray Allen dagger in the waning moments of the fourth quarter to seal what became a four-point win for Miami.
Four points. The 2012 NBA champions defeated a group of essential no names, a convocation of odds and ends, by four points.
Surely this was just a bump in the road, though. Miami was coming off almost a week-long rest and still needed to regain its footing.
Almost needless to say, all hope was restored after the Heat thrashed the Brooklyn Nets the very next game. Everything was fine.
But it wasn't. Miami went on to lose against the worst team in the league in the Washington Wizards, immediately followed by a romping suffered at the hands of the Anthony-less Knicks—the most tell-tale of all the Heat's failures this season.
Miami allowed New York to connect on 18 three-pointers and score 112 points in their first home loss of the season. This comes after the Heat allowed the boys in orange and blue to connect on 19 the first time around.
But this has become a reoccurring theme in the 305 this season. The Heat are complementing their third-ranked offense (109.3 points per 100 possessions) with the league's eighth-worst defense (allowing 104 points per 100 possessions).
Miami's loss to New York marked the fifth time in six contests it allowed 100 or more points and was the 10th time they conceded as many points this season.
Even in the early goings of a campaign, that's troubling. The Heat allowed 100 or more points just 16 times in 66 games last year. Now, however they've let up 100 or more 10 times in 17 games.
And that's what has been this team's greatest pitfall this season—defense. Or rather, a lack of defense.
Last season, the Heat boasted the sixth-most efficient offense (104.3 points per 100 possessions) in the Association, meaning their offensive potency has actually grown in the last year. However, they paired that with the fourth-most efficient defensive attack (allowing just 97.1 points per 100 possessions) as well. That's almost a seven-point swing in the wrong direction between this year and last.
Obviously, though, this is a direct result of the Heat utilizing smaller lineups on a full-time basis. Clearly, they're getting hammered in the paint, and that's why they're allowing so many points.
Except that it's not.
Miami is currently allowing 39.8 points in the paint, up from the 37.1 they allowed last year. However, that actually puts them in the league's top 11 at preventing baskets at the rim.
Yes, the nearly three-point increase is a problem, but it's not the foremost issue here. Perimeter defense is.
Can the Heat win another NBA title while allowing over 100 points per game?
The Heat are allowing teams to score 27.5 points per game from beyond the arc, the second-most in the NBA, behind the lowly New Orleans Hornets.
Miami spends so much time attempting to help Bosh protect the rim that it leaves them susceptible to drive-and-kicks. Once one wing rotates off his man help stop a penetrating Felton or Jason Kidd, the Heat are one pass away from watching helplessly as a three-point barrage continues.
Essentially, this leaves Miami vulnerable to any team that can attack the basket and protect the ball. Toss in the fact that the Heat are forcing just 14.4 cough ups per game (19th in the league) and it's easy to see why drive-and-kicks can kill them.
And how such strategies will continue to cripple them until they strengthen their rotations and protect the perimeter for a change.
After all, how can they expect to win a title by allowing so many uncontested looks from outside? How can they expect to win a second consecutive championship while roaming the depths of a defensive category next to predominantly rebuilding teams?
They can't. And they won't. Not until they correct their porous tendencies on the perimeter. Not until they recapture the defensive identity they've lost, the same one that can prevent losses against inferior units from materializing.
The same one that can render James' monstrous stat lines more than useless.
And yeah, the same one the Heat need if they wish to successfully defend their championship throne.
All stats in this article are accurate as of December 6, 2012.