9:30 am Feb. 24, 2012
The New York Knicks entered Thursday night's game against the Miami Heat as a team in transition. Despite Jeremy Lin's remarkable rise and success, the Knicks as a whole had been struggling to combine Lin's playmaking abilities with the scoring of Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire.
Ironing out offensive wrinkles on the fly, with contributors like J.R. Smith and Baron Davis having barely practiced, and Anthony recently back from his groin injury, might work against an undermanned Atlanta Hawks team, as it did on Wednesday night.
But against the Miami Heat, winners of seven straight games by double figures entering the contest, Lin and the Knicks were exposed cruelly, by a score of 102-88, in a demonstration of how much ground the Knicks have left to cover if they want to compete with the N.B.A.'s most talented team.
The story certainly can start with Lin, who had a nightmare game. He shot 1-for-11 for the night, turned the ball over eight times, and tallied just three assists in 34 minutes.
In the first half of the game, Lin committed six of his turnovers while shooting 1-for-5. In the second half, he seemed to shy away from even seeking out his teammates. His two turnovers and one assist, along with six missed shots, are the totals of a player who had been totally taken out of his game by Miami's consistent double-teams and pressure.
It isn't as if Miami has discovered some secret means of stopping Lin that none of his previous opponents have figured. Miami is simply a devastatingly good defensive team, especially on the perimeter. And Lin didn't figure out how to utilize the attention they were paying to him to find his open teammates.
Nor did those other Knicks take proper advantage when they did receive the ball.
Amar'e Stoudemire, for instance, turned the ball over six times himself in the first half, though he did score 11 points in the first 24 minutes. He then disappeared in the second half. He took just seven shots and simply wasn't a factor in the game, which is hard to explain when the defense was so focused on Lin, and to a lesser extent, Anthony.
The pressure on Lin also cut the electricity from Lin to Anthony, and Anthony got what touches he could in isolation far more often than he got the ball within the flow of the offense. The resulting 7-for-20 was about right, with the Heat able to focus more attention on him once Lin and Stoudemire ceased to be effective offensive weapons.
The night wasn't hopeless. The massive defensive pressure from Miami produced 15 turnovers in the first half, but sending defensive players in waves leads to offensive rebounds for the attacked team, so the Knicks managed to convert enough second-shot opportunities to trail just 51-47 at the break. The second half was grimmer and altogether less suspenseful affair, with the Knicks unable to produce the kind of offensive effort necessary to stay in the game with the relentless Heat.
They looked tired, to put it bluntly, and not just because of the back-to-back games they played. Miami's speed is absurd, starting with stars LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. The two-headed point-guard combination of Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole combine quick hands with the ability to finish, and center Joel Anthony is a shot-blocker on par with Tyson Chandler.
As a result, it feels like Miami is running downhill every time they speed across the midcourt stripe, and they get many, many opportunities to do so in transition. Add in that the Heat are shooting 40 percent as a team from three-point range—a number only Steve Novak can beat among individual Knicks—and it isn't at all surprising that Miami enters the All Star break at 27-7, best in the Eastern Conference.
It's not hard to imagine that the Knicks can improve upon this performance next time the two teams play. On a night when Jeremy Lin and Baron Davis combined to shoot 1-for-18 from the point guard position, Carmelo Anthony shot 35 percent, and Amar'e Stoudemire disappeared for an entire half, New York still managed to stay within theoretical striking distance until the game's final minutes.
The Knicks have another two months to coalesce before they need to face Miami again, April 15 at Madison Square Garden. That game will serve as another measuring stick for the ever-changing Knicks team.
In the meantime, subsequent successes by both Lin and the Knicks will carry an implied warning with them. The Knicks are far better than they were just a few years ago. But they're not the Miami Heat yet, either.