On Sunday, LeBron James propelled the Heat to a 99-93 victory over the Knicks, torching New York for 29 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and a block. His performance couldn't have been much better.
Just like New York's.
This isn't to say that the Knicks couldn't have improved upon their performance. We saw them knock down an unconscious 37 three-pointers combined in their first two meetings against the Heat. They made just eight and shot just 27.6 percent from the behind the arc in this one.
That said, the Knicks went up by as many as 16 points against a Heat team at full strength. It doesn't get much better than that. Just as we found ourselves admitting after their first two 20-point victories over Miami, no one manhandles LeBron and company like that, even for stretches.
Yet the Knicks have. Twice. Almost three times.
And yet, it shouldn't, or rather, can't be that difficult. New York can't hit 18 and 19 threes every game, especially against Miami. The Knicks can't rely on godly collective performances on each and every occasion. Because 1) it's not plausible to do so and 2) this loss saw plenty of effort on both sides of the ball.
Sure, New York committed 17 turnovers, but that's just three more than Miami had. Tyson Chandler played some incredible defense, Carmelo Anthony dropped 32 points, Jason Kidd got hot from the outside and Amar'e Stoudemire was a force on numerous possessions.
But it wasn't enough. That 16-point lead in the first half wasn't enough. That 14-point lead in the second half wasn't enough. The Knicks just weren't enough.
One could argue that J.R. Smith's 5-of-18 shooting didn't help the cause, and that beyond questionable decision making cost New York the game. And one would be right. But this is also the Knicks' reality.
They have to continuously cope with the tumultuous stylings of Smith, the limited use of Stoudemire and the inconsistent scorers outside of Anthony. They have to play in a conference that is only as open as the Heat want it to be.
They have to look up at a faction that is in complete control, even when they don't seem to be.
Such is the curse when playing the Heat, when facing LeBron James.
Bear in mind that neither Dwyane Wade nor Chris Bosh had demonstrative performances either. Wade had the quietest near triple-double I've ever seen and Bosh didn't show signs of life until the second half.
Still, the Heat won. At a time when they could have rolled over, and accepted a third straight defeat at the hands of a conference foe, they battled back—against an equally committed Knicks team.
What's important to understand is that the Knicks didn't put forth their most dominant performance of the season. But that effort was there. The ball movement was there. The open shots, they were there.
The effort was there, too. It was one of their best efforts. Not prettiest or most fecund, but the importance of this bout resonated with them.
We're quick to rebuke the Knicks' transition defense and call Smith a nimrod for his costly turnover in the waning seconds, but it's not like he and his teammates didn't shed blood and sweat attempting to snag this victory. The disgruntled, disheartened looks at the final buzzer showed us that much.
Awful as some of New York's sets on both offense and defense were, this wasn't a lethargic showing. The Knicks came out with gusto, ready to battle, ready to push Miami to the brink.
Which they did.
Do the Knicks have what it takes to beat the Heat in a seven game series?
When the Heat pushed back, however, the Knicks had no answers. They had no answers for LeBron in the fourth quarter, no clue how to defeat Miami when their three-point shot regressed to the mean.
They had no idea how to stop the Heat when the Heat themselves weren't imploding.
"You gotta do everything right to beat that team," Knicks head coach Mike Woodson said (via Tommy Beer of Hoopsworld) after the game.
The Knicks were far from perfect, but their effort, their will was at its best.
And still, it wasn't enough to beat "that team," to beat LeBron.
To beat the Heat.