The Miami Heat have looked invincible in defense of their championship while rattling off 27 consecutive wins and cruising to the best record in the league. However, there is one team they are secretly terrified of facing in the playoffs: the New York Knicks.
The Knicks have the recipe to knock off the Heat: a superstar in Carmelo Anthony who believes he is on par with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the ability to win games from behind the arc and a veteran roster that knows how to execute down the stretch in the playoffs.
Perhaps most importantly, New York is not intimidated by Miami. The Knicks are confident that they can beat the defending champions and proved so by winning three of the four matchups between the two teams this season.
The Knicks roster and style of play is reminiscent of the Dallas Mavericks team that beat the Heat in the NBA Finals in 2011. Tyson Chandler and Jason Kidd, both of whom were on that Mavs team, are integral to the Knicks' success.
Anthony plays the role of Dirk Nowitzki, the virtually unguardable scorer who can carry a team on him on his back, and like the 2011-12 Mavs, the Knicks can hurt Miami with the deep ball.
Anthony is scoring a league-high 28.7 points per game and has been on a tear recently, averaging 35.1 points over his last 10 games (via NBA.com). The Knicks forward is capable of winning a couple of games on his own against the Heat.
In the past, teams could stifle the Knicks' attack by forcing the ball out of Melo's hands. The offense is different this season with Anthony playing the 4. Coach Woodson spreads the floor with shooters, which gives Anthony more room to operate. Melo has done an excellent job of reading double-teams and moving the ball to open teammates.
New York's perimeter players have played their part by knocking down shots. The Knicks lead the league in three-point attempts (28.9 per game) and are connecting 37.6 percent of the time (via ESPN.com).
Miami is an excellent defensive team—they rank sixth in defensive efficiency (100.4) (via ESPN.com)—but are vulnerable against teams that can catch fire from long distance. Heat opponents shot 35 percent on three-point attempts, which ranks 12th (via ESPN.com).
The sudden emergence of J.R. Smith has lightened Anthony's load and placed greater pressure on opposing defenses. The shooting guard was having a solid season, though the light bulb appeared to finally go off for the nine-year veteran in early March.
Smith, an exceptional athlete with a quick first step, had been maligned throughout his career for poor shot selection. He used to settle for contested 20-foot jumpers instead of taking the ball to the basket.
Suddenly, Smith morphed into the player coaches and scouts believed he could be, a dual threat who can beat defenders off the dribble or from the perimeter. As seen below, over his last 15 games Smith is averaging 23.7 points on 50.6 percent shooting from the field and 38.5 percent from downtown (via NBA.com).
The most compelling number from Smith's hot streak is his free-throw attempts per game (6.4) (via NBA.com). As noted by basketball-reference.com, that is well-above his season and career averages, 3.9 and 2.6 respectively, and would rank eighth in the league over the course of the season, just behind LeBron James (via ESPN.com).
The Knicks also will not be flustered by Miami's defensive pressure. Coach Spoelstra's players are disciplined in their rotations and force turnovers on the perimeter with their athleticism. According to ESPN.com, the Heat average the third-most steals per game (8.8).
However, the Knicks start two experienced point guards in Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigioni, with Kidd coming off the bench. The three floor generals protect the ball and keep it moving. New York averages a league-low 11.6 turnovers per game (via ESPN.com).
The Knicks demonstrated that their formula for success can be effective against the Heat. They defeated the defending champions by 20 points in each of their first two meetings this season (104-84 in New York on November 2, and 112-92 at Miami on December 6).
On both occasions, Miami could not contain the Knicks behind the arc. New York shot 53 percent (19-of-36) in their first meeting and 41 percent (18-of-44) in the rematch. The second rout took place without Anthony, who was sidelined with a finger injury.
The Heat held the Knicks to 28 percent shooting (8-of-29) on three-point attempts in their lone victory over the orange and blue on March 3. New York also turned the ball over 17 times in the loss, compared to an average of 11 in its three victories.
The Knicks beat the Heat inside and outside in the final matchup between the two teams. Anthony took advantage of the absence of James and Wade to score 50 points on 18-of-26 shooting, including 7-of-10 from behind the arc. The Knicks shot 52 percent from downtown as a team.
The stakes are higher and the intensity rises in the postseason. The Heat are extremely talented, very well-coached and confident in their quest for consecutive titles. It will be very difficult to beat them four times in a series.
However, the Knicks have the personnel and swagger to pull off the upset, and the Heat players know it. They do not want to face New York in the Eastern Conference Finals.