The Miami Heat are in the crosshairs of several Eastern Conference teams, including the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets. The Knicks, however, not only have a better chance at dethroning the champs; they may in fact be the team to beat this season.
These are bold statements coming off respective Knicks and Nets losses to teams they really should have knocked off at home—the Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz, respectively.
So who is going to dethrone them?
A few teams can do it, beginning with the owners of the East’s best record—the Knicks.
The Chicago Bulls are an interesting option, especially when Derrick Rose returns. And how about Josh Smith, Al Horford and those Atlanta Hawks, just a game behind the Heat in the Southeast?
The Brooklyn Nets? Not so much.
Brooklyn has found itself in a tailspin of late. After winning five in a row, including victories against the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Clippers and New York Knicks, the Nets have dropped an awful seven of nine. They went from 11-4 and a tie for first place to 13-11 and the sixth seed.
Much of this reversal, though, can be traced to one thing—Brook Lopez’s mid-foot sprain that sidelined the center for an unforeseen two weeks. All of the seven losses in this slump were either without Lopez or with him receiving slow-return limited time.
Howard Beck of the New York Times just tweeted that Lopez’s minutes will be upped now to “probably around 30” a game.
There are also some bright spots on the Nets’ completed schedule, as the aforementioned Clippers and Knicks wins. They beat the Celtics twice and the Orlando Magic three times already.
Ten of Brooklyn’s 11 losses have been to over-.500 teams. The other was to the Los Angeles Lakers.
The fact is that the Nets are good—better than average, even. They need Lopez, clearly. Injuries to Deron Williams or Joe Johnson would harm them similarly.
But they’re not good enough to beat a Miami team who has Brooklyn’s number. The Heat have beaten the Nets twice, including a 30-point thrashing early on. And that was with Brook Lopez, who had a meek evening.
NBA.com’s team vs. team analysis for the Nets vs. Heat shows how far off Brooklyn is from overtaking Miami.
In six of 11 statistical categories, the Nets play “more than 10 percent below average” against the Heat. The Heat, on the other hand, play simply average to beat the Nets.
The Knicks are a different story.
They at last might just have the Heats' number. After years of playing folly to Miami (4-14 since Mike D’Antoni came to town, including the playoffs), New York appears to be in the driver’s seat, at least for now.
NBA.com’s Knicks vs. Heat analysis shows how dominant New York has been in their two wins against Miami.
The Knicks snuff the Heat to 10 percent below-average play in seven categories, while they themselves play above average in points, assists, three-pointers and overall rating.
Not only did New York handily beat the Heat twice (once without Carmelo Anthony), they also took down the San Antonio Spurs and are 11-2 against the East. That last bit is probably the most important stat in the Knicks’ search for the No. 1 seed.
They have a more productive bench than both the Heat and Nets, as well as posting the 10th best scoring offense compared to 22nd and 23rd, respectively.
Finally, the Knicks have two of their best players on deck: Amar’e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert. The assumption is that these guys will make New York better, especially with Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd distributing.
New York has one of the best teams in the league. Brooklyn, healthy, is not far behind. Chicago will be in the mix. Atlanta, too.
But it’s the Knicks who have the best chance at dethroning the Heat. So far this season, it looks like Miami’s going to need to knock off New York.
Stats as of end of Dec. 18 play.