MIAMI — Empty seats for early starts have become a South Florida tradition, and a source of some sensitivity. Still, Sunday, they served a purpose, sparing scores of eventual spectators from witnessing all of the empty possessions.
LeBron James may have arrived on time, but his passes were late, short, long or simply misguided. He committed four turnovers, while recording just one assist, in the game's first 221 seconds.
"I wasn't awake yet," James admitted after the game.
Eventually, he would fully rise and brightly shine, posting 38 points, five rebounds, five assists and just one turnover in his final 39 minutes of a 102-91 Miami Heat victory, a victory that pushed the New York Knicks closer to playoff elimination, an outcome Miami should welcome, with the reasons to come.
James would do so on a day that the Heat needed something near his best, to survive a storm of shots from J.R. Smith, who hoisted an NBA-record 22 three-point attempts, and actually made a healthy 10 of them. Smith even accomplished the impossible—he took 12 shots in the fourth quarter alone, while Carmelo Anthony, one of the NBA's most prolific gunners, attempted none.
Anthony's last of 17 shots came with 10.4 seconds remaining in the third quarter, after the shot clock was turned off.
"I don't even know if we knew the clock," Knicks coach Mike Woodson moaned.
James knew what to do with the rebound, racing the other way, converting a layup, drawing a foul, seemingly dooming New York with a nine-point deficit heading into the final quarter.
From there, Anthony was idle. Maybe his aching right shoulder, and an increasingly "dead" arm, had something to do with it. Maybe Shane Battier's irritatingly exemplary defense (with the occasional double) played a part.
Still, this was something to see—Smith, benched for an earlier meeting between these teams, burying whatever's left of his conscience completely and drilling shots from 25, 26, 28 and 27 feet, some with James assigned to him, before clanking his final three attempts.
"I think the fourth quarter, I forced more than I should," Smith said. "But a lot of them were falling, so you got to take them."
You really couldn't blame him, not this time, with Anthony ineffective and Tim Hardaway Jr. looking terrified (the son of the former Heat star is now 2-for-22 in American Airlines Arena in his rookie season).
Still, in the end, the Heat took the victory, capitalizing on the Knicks' defensive breakdowns, with Woodson lamenting the lack of consistent communication.
Inconsistency has been the Knicks' only constant this season. Inconsistent availability. Inconsistent rotations. Inconsistent effort. Inconsistent performance. They've lost to Boston by 41, and given up 51 to the Los Angeles Lakers in a single quarter.
They're the crazy cousin who might say or do anything, from delivering a deeply moving holiday speech to stabbing the cuddly family cat.
And that's not someone the Heat need at the playoff table. That's why this win mattered. It shoved the Knicks in a terrible spot, probably needing to sweep their final four—all against playoff teams—simply to oust an Atlanta squad that has struggled since Al Horford was injured, an Atlanta organization that is openly ambivalent at best about making the postseason.
If the Heat can secure the top seed, the Hawks would represent the perfect first-round foil against which Miami can build some rhythm, especially since it's not clear when Dwyane Wade (who has missed the Heat's last six games and 25 overall) will return. Sure, Paul Millsap has been a monster against Miami, but everything else sets up for a short, stable, simple series. Limited media presence. Fickle fan base, with half the house pulling for the Heat.
Atlanta offers none of the variables that come from a confrontation with the nutty Knicks. Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler suddenly looking spry. Smith going off. Anthony getting right.
After Sunday's stellar effort, which came after he was used for only an inbounds pass in Friday's double-overtime loss to Minnesota, Battier acknowledged that what he'll miss, more than anything, are matchups like this one.
"I will miss the feeling of the butterflies before the game, when I know I have to guard Carmelo Anthony, and guard a Kevin Durant, and guard a Kobe Bryant," Battier said. "There's nothing in my life that will ever, ever replicate that feeling. So I try to enjoy it as much as I could. It's not a good feeling. It's not. It's not. But it makes you feel alive."
With retirement looming after the season, he'll never face Bryant again. It appears that Sunday was the last time he'll face Anthony. That's because, after a sluggish start, James came alive Sunday.
And now the Knicks look dead.