By Sean Highkin
No one series should have all that (star) power. This will be the most talked-about series of the first round, because of the markets and names involved. Both of these teams chased LeBron James in the summer of 2010, and one of them won. On the surface, there are a lot of similarities between the New York Knicks and Miami Heat. Their rosters are insanely top-heavy and pretty thin beyond the big names. Each team has one superstar who has battled injuries all year (Amar’e Stoudemire and Dwyane Wade, respectively). The Knicks boast the best interior defender in the league in Tyson Chandler, while the Heat have its best all-around player in James. Both of these teams have looked virtually unstoppable at some points during the regular season, and completely lost at others.
The Knicks in particular have had to change narratives this season more times than people can count. The most compelling of those stories, the rise of Jeremy Lin, will be a non-factor here as he sits out with a knee injury. Because of this, Baron Davis and Mike Bibby will be handling point-guard duties for New York, which can’t make Knicks fans feel too optimistic. Both of them will have to keep their turnovers down to avoid giving up easy baskets to the deadliest open-court duo in the NBA. That’s a tall order, especially against a defense as good as Miami’s.
The matchup to watch, obviously, is that of James and Carmelo Anthony, who has played out of his mind since Mike D’Antoni resigned. Beyond that, there are several players on either side who could conceivably swing the series. For the Heat, Chris Bosh’s contributions will be key, and he’ll have his work cut out for him against Chandler. If Mike Miller is able to knock down open shots, that gives Miami another offensive weapon. Ditto Steve Novak on the Knicks, whose concern isn’t as much making shots as not being too much of a liability on the defensive end. The Knicks’ ability to win the series may depend on which version of J.R. Smith decides to show up. If he heats up, there’s nothing to stop him from changing the outcome of at least one or two games.
No matter what happens, this will be the series that gets the most media attention. If the Heat lose, the “LeBron shrinks in big moments” narrative will be double that of what it was after last year’s Finals. If the Knicks lose, they’re apparently gearing up to throw an ungodly amount of money at Phil Jackson. It’s hard to pick against the Heat, because the pure talent of James and Wade is simply overwhelming. But either way, this one’s going to be fun
The Death of Reason
By Jared Dubin
– Crazy Thing That Could Happen In This Series #1 – LeBron James’ postseason disappearing act could come earlier than it has in each of the last two years. LeBron seemingly wilted under pressure in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics, playing passive and disinterested as the Cavaliers looked listless and fell in Games 5 and 6. Similarly, he seemed to be spontaneously invisible in the second half of the series against the Mavericks in the NBA Finals. (Of course, this conveniently ignores how dominant James was in the series’ immediately proceeding his disappearing acts. But still, a pattern has been established and it’s possible the issues could creep up yet again.)
– Crazy Thing That Could Happen In This Series #2 – Baron Davis, Mike Bibby, Toney Douglas, Mario Chalmers or Norris Cole might actually see the court in crunch time of an NBA playoff game.
– Crazy Thing That Could Happen In This Series #3 – J.R. Smith or Steve Novak could set the record for 3-pointers made in a playoff game. The way the Heat play defense, they give up a lot of open 3-pointers. Their constant trapping and rotating sometimes leaves holes on the perimeter, and good shooters from the outside can make them pay. Novak led the league in 3-point field goal percentage this season and Smith is one of the streakiest shooters in NBA history. Just a couple weeks ago the two combined for 15 3’s against the Boston Celtics’ trapping, rotating defense, and if the Heat get just a little bit lazy or slow with their help defense, New York’s shooters can bury them in record numbers.
– Crazy Thing That Could Happen In This Series #4 – LeBron and Dwyane Wade could have a bagillion highlight reel plays. The Heat overwhelmed the Knicks in the open court in their February meeting, turning 19 Knick turnovers into multiple rim-crushing dunks and fastbreak alley-oops. If the Heat can force the Knicks to turn the ball over and get out on the break, it will go a long way toward curing what was an ailing offense in April.
– Crazy Thing That Could Happen In This Series #6 – Amar’e Stoudemire could grab himself a lot of bench. There is so much lineup data out there that suggests that the Carmelo-Amar’re, Tyson-Amar’e and especially Carmelo-Tyson-Amar’e lineup combinations just do not work. With the way the Knicks played toward the end of the season with Chandler at center and Anthony at power forward, Stoudemire seems to be the odd man out here. Mike Woodson has been starting Stoudemire but taking him out early on to get Melo extended minutes as a small ball four. If that alignment proves as effective against Miami as it was in the home stretch of the regular season, will Woodson have the guts to glue Stoudemire to the bench for extended stretches before unleashing him against Miami’s softer second unit? His willingness to do so could be key for New York’s chances in the series.
– Crazy Thing That Could Happen In This Series #7 – We could potentially get a bench clearing brawl, right? It is Knicks-Heat, after all.
Chemical Reactions, Plate Tectonics & You
By Jared Dubin
If the Knicks are going to make things difficult from Miami, they’ll have to get a lift from their bench. Miami’s depth is a weakness, but New York’s is is a strength. The play of Steve Novak – who led the league in 3-point field goal percentage – J.R. Smith and Landry Fields is especially important, but the Knicks will also need solid, efficient performances from the likes of Mike Bibby and Jared Jeffries and/or Josh Harrelson and Dan Gadzuric if Jeffries can’t play through his injuries. Novak and Smith are best equipped to make the Heat pay. Miami likes to trap ball-handlers and depend on their help defense and quick rotations to close out on shooters. If the Knicks can whip the ball around the perimeter and find Novak and Smith with space beyond the arc, they can catch fire and keep New York in the game. Especially if the Heat elect to double Carmelo Anthony on the dribble drive or in the post, the ability of New York’s wings and guards to make catch-and-shoot jumpers will be of paramount importance.
The Knicks going small with Melo at the four can also cause problems for the Heat, whether he’s sharing the front court with Tyson Chandler or Amar’e Stoudemire. If Chris Bosh has to guard Anthony for any kind of extended stretch of time, he could easily get burned. Melo is at his best when he’s got the ball in the deep wing on the right side of the court and he can jab-step, pump-fake, drive and bully his way to the basket for lay-ups, offensive rebounds and free throws. Guarding him with a bigger, slower defender plays right into his hands. And if he really gets going and the Heat have to bring double teams his way, that opens things up for the likes of Novak, Smith, Iman Shumpert and Baron Davis from the outside. That’s why you saw LeBron James guarding Carmelo solo down the stretch of the last Heat-Knicks game. Once that change was made, Melo stopped attacking the basket and settled for four 3-pointers in the 4th quarter as the Heat pulled away.
It will be interesting to see what happens if and when both teams go small though. Both Anthony and James have had great success as small-ball power forwards this season, especially Anthony over the last few weeks when Amar’e Stoudemire was injured. Using their speed and quickness advantages against bigger players at the four on the offensive end led to easy baskets around the rim, and when the defenders started to play off, both Bron and Melo would make them pay from the mid-range and beyond. The move to the four also helped Carmelo immensely on the defensive end. Rather than being primarily on the perimeter where he was prone to ball watching and lazy rotations, he often found himself working underneath the basket in the post, and his weaknesses as a defender were less noticeable. He wasn’t necessarily good on that end, but he was much more active and engaged. Both James and Anthony enjoyed advantages over other power forwards, but if the team go small at the same time, those advantages may be neutralized. The few times that Anthony hasn’t been flat out dominant over the last month or so came when teams went small against the Knicks’ small-ball lineup, like when Indiana played Danny Granger as a power forward and the Bulls did the same with Luol Deng. And now that Stoudemire has returned to the lineup and Anthony has slid back to small forward, it’s likely he’ll be matched up with LeBron for most of the series. It’s nearly impossible to neutralize James, but if he gets baited into a game of one-upsmanship with Carmelo and starts isolating one-on-one instead of moving and cutting and finding Wade and Bosh and putting constant pressure on the Knicks’ maniacally rotating defense of their own, it will go a long way toward slowing him down.
The Knicks will probably send a bunch of different guys at both James and Dwyane Wade throughout the course of the series. Iman Shumpert will draw the primary duty on Wade, but he’ll also see time on LeBron. Smith and Fields will both get shots to guard each of the Heat’s perimeter threats as well. You might see Carmelo, Jeffries, Amar’e or even Novak on LeBron at some point. At different points of the game the Knicks may double each or both of them or play them strictly one-on-one. They might trap or they might not. The goal will be to keep them on their toes so they don’t know what coverage to expect on any given trip down the court. Shumpert will do an admirable job on Wade, but Flash is still going to get his. Smith has been much more dedicated on defense as a Knick than he was in Denver, but he’s still vulnerable off the dribble and on the weak side closing out on shooters. Fields loses shooters like it’s his job and can be bullied in the post if he ever has to guard James. Obviously, LeBron causes all kinds of problems for the Knicks both on the break and in the half court. He’s a freight train when working off the dribble-drive, gets to the line nearly at will and has added a refined and improved post-up arsenal to what was already the most dominant and diversified offense game in the NBA. Carmelo will do as best he can to slow him down, but they’ll have to give him lots of help. At that point it will be up to the Knicks’ other defenders to rotate out to Bosh, Wade, Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Mike Miller and Norris Cole. Chandler will have to be all over the court, from the 3-point line to the rim.
Speaking of New York’s defense, it does feature the one guy who caused the most problems for the Heat in last year’s NBA Finals: Defensive Player of the Year favorite Tyson Chandler. Chandler’s presence in the lane and near the rim led the way as the Knicks improved from a bottom 10 defense last season to a top 5 one this year. He’s probably the single most important defensive player in the league. His combination of energy, communication skills and versatility make him very well equipped to stymie the Heat’s three-pronged superstar attack. One way Miami can attack Chandler and the Knicks defense is to go small. Forcing Chandler to cover Chris Bosh (which he’ll likely have to do a lot of anyway, even if the Heat don’t go small much – see next paragraph) draws him out of the paint and opens up driving lanes for Wade and James. Bosh’s ability to knock down mid-range jumpers should keep Chandler away from the hoop. If they can get Wade and Bosh in pick-and-roll situations, they can very likely get Shumpert to switch on the screen (fighting through screens is the biggest among Shump’s few defensive weakness) and get a mismatch for Bosh on the block or Wade off the dribble. Shumpert has put the screws on the likes of Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant and even Wade at times this season in isolation, but you can catch him if you throw lots of screens his way.
The Heat will obviously be looking to take advantage of Stoudemire’s poor defense as well. He’d struggle enough to defend Bosh in the Heat’s and Knicks’ normal lineups that they’ll try to hide him on Turiaf, Anthony or Haslem whenever possible by having Chandler guard Bosh for much of the game. But that brings Chandler away from the hoop and forces the Knicks to rely on Stoudemire as a rim-protector. And if Amar’e ever has to defend James when the Heat go to their small ball lineup, forget it. It will be the torching to end all torchings. The only way Stoudemire can neutralize his bad defense is by going to work on Bosh, Haslem, Anthony, James and whoever else Miami throws his way on the other end. With the way the Heat play pick-and-roll defense, Amar’e has to be able to nail that defense-stretching, 15-18 foot jumper from either elbow to keep them honest. On New York’s first unit, Chandler is usually the Knicks’ primary screener and Stoudemire comes in behind as the outlet man, and that shot should either open up for Stoudemire or else he’ll have to make another quick-hit pass to the corner or the opposite wing to find Shumpert, Novak, Smith or Fields for a 3-pointer or a side pick-and-roll opportunity. When Stoudemire is out there with the second unit, he’ll be the primary screener, and he has to know when the slip the screen to keep the defense honest and when to hold it. He’s a dangerous finisher on the roll and Davis, Bibby, Shumpert, Anthony and Smith have to keep their head up looking for him. If he can hit pick-and-pop jumpers off quick-hit passes against Miami’s traps, that’s a huge plus for the Knicks.
Both teams might also go without traditional point guards for small stretches of the series. James has functioned as Miami’s de facto backup point guard for a while now due to the inconsistent play of Norris Cole, and Woodson has shown a proclivity for playing Shumpert and Smith as his back court at times. The Shump-Smith tandem has actually been one of New York’s most effective offensive lineups this season, averaging 105.7 points per 100 possessions (pts/100). They have been pretty good defensively too, giving up just 99.7 pts/100. But the Heat’s most common 5-man lineup with LeBron at the point – James, Wade, Battier, Bosh, Haslem – was even better, scoring 112.3 pts/100 and giving up 103.4. Whether the teams go point guard-less at the same time or different times will be something interesting to watch.
The play-calling of Mike Woodson and Erik Spoelstra is sure to be a hot topic as well, as both teams are prone to stretches of ugly, disjointed, isolation-heavy basketball at times. The Knicks have been all-Melo, all-the-time lately and they’ve had a lot of success. That type of isolation-heavy approach doesn’t work against the Heat though; Miami was ranked 1st in the league in points per possession against on Isolation plays according to mySynergySports. Since Woodson became the head coach, the Knicks have run the highest percentage of isolation plays in the league, and their percentage of isolations was actually higher than any team’s percentage of any type of play. It’s a good thing Woody has shown some flashes of creativity with his play-calling in crunch time, because constant one-on-one play against the Heat is not going to cut it. Spoelstra has come been criticized for uncreative play-calling late in games, preferring to set up an isolation or high pick-and-roll opportunity for either James or Wade. James, obviously, has come under (mostly undeserved) fire for decisions on whether to take the last shot or pass the ball to a teammate. Whichever coach gets his team to move the ball, move without the ball and probe the defense until it finds the best shot will go a long way toward giving their team an advantage in the series.
The biggest mismatch of the series isn’t actually between any two players, but rather the Knicks’ biggest weakness and Miamis greatest strength. New York struggled all year with turnovers leading to easy baskets; the Knicks ranked 27th in the league in both turnover ratio and opponents’ points off turnovers per game. The Heat, of course, have thrived off forcing their opponents into turnovers and turning them into easy baskets. Miami ranked 3rd in the NBA in opponents’ turnover ratio and tied for 1st in points off turnovers per game. LeBron led the league in points off turnovers per game and Wade finished 2nd. In 3 games this year, the Heat forced the Knicks into 54 turnovers and turned them into 60 points. That rate of 20.0 points off turnovers per game was 2.3 more than the Knicks allowed as a team and would have led the NBA this season. If the Knicks don’t limit their turnovers – if they dribble directly into the Heat’s traps, if they throw lazy ball reversal passes, if they don’t watch out for double teams in the post – and they let Miami get free points, they simply have no chance at the series.
As If We Knew
By Steve McPherson
Based on all the troubles, real or imagined, that both of these teams have with getting all their tremendously talented players to play in a talented and tremendous way with each other, the best route for either team might be handing over their superstars and watching their opponent explode in a fiery ball of sheer basketball skill. How terrible would a team with Wade, James, Anthony, Stoudemire, and Bosh be? Clearly, they would be awful.
But that of course, is not going to happen. Miami won all three games between these two teams this season and there seems to be little doubt they will win this series. If New York can get comfortable with Stoudemire off the bench, expect them to bring it to Miami and draw this out to at least five and maybe six if we’re really getting into a New York state of mind. Anthony’s been on fire recently, but the playoffs have a way of tamping down individual numbers in favor of balanced offense. That’s also something that plays into Miami’s favor; even though they’ve struggled offensively recently, there’s every reason to think their cavalcade of stars will do serious damage in the early rounds.
One thing that will be interesting to watch for as it develops is James and Anthony playing the 4 for their teams. Both have had success as sort of super-strong but undersized PFs. James posted a frankly ridiculous 37.6 PER at the position, while Anthony posted a less silly but also impressive 28.9 PER as a 4. By way of contrast, Kevin Love led all “true” PFs with a PER of 25.3 for the season. But if both Anthony and James are playing PF, it’s likely to neutralize the advantages (primarily speed and shooting) both have preyed on from that spot.
Miami in 5.