9:29 am Apr. 27, 2012
Over a period of nearly two years, the New York Knicks demolished their roster, forgoing any real competitiveness from 2008-2010 in the hope that LeBron James would choose to sign with them and return them to relevance.
That didn't work out.
Now, New York is going to the playoffs for the second consecutive year, and standing in the Knicks' way are LeBron James and the Miami Heat team he chose instead.
The Knicks will be underdogs in every conceivable way. Miami finished 46-20, and is the second seed in the Eastern Conference; New York finished 36-30, and is the seventh seed. Miami and New York played three times; the Heat won all three games, and New York didn't really come close to winning any of them. The Knicks were 14-19 on the road, Miami was 28-5 at home, and four of the seven scheduled series games, beginning Saturday afternoon, will be in Miami.
But there are mitigating factors.
This season's head-to-head matchups, for one thing, have very little to do with the Knicks team as it now exists.
In the first Knicks-Heat game, Carmelo Anthony didn't play, nor did Baron Davis. Mike D'Antoni was the coach. Toney Douglas was the point guard, taking 18 shots, and New York's scoring leader was Bill Walker, who is no longer with the club.
In the second game, Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony had just returned from extended absences, and Miami succeeded by forcing Jeremy Lin, who will not play in the series, into his first poor performance as a Knick.
In the third game, Carmelo Anthony had found the form that made him the best player in the N.B.A. over the season's final month, but Amar'e Stoudemire did not play, Tyson Chandler had perhaps the only poor game he's had all season, and Baron Davis was in far worse shape than he is now.
The Knicks team that Miami will face on Sunday isn't 100 percent, but its roster will be in better shape than it's been in for any of the previous Miami games. Anthony shows no signs of wear, despite carrying the team for weeks. Stoudemire is showing no signs of any ill effects from his back injury. Baron Davis appears rejuvenated following a few games off last week. And Tyson Chandler has gotten into the habit of willing his team to victories, sometimes by himself.
With a second unit powered by J.R. Smith and Steve Novak, and Jared Jeffries expected back to provide defense and rebounding off the bench, the Knicks have more weapons to throw at the Heat than most seven seeds would. Certainly, Miami would have preferred to face the Philadelphia 76ers, a limited eighth seed that limped to the finish line, or the Orlando Magic, who enter the playoffs seeded sixth without the guy who got them there, center Dwight Howard.
And while the Knicks are healing, the Heat aren't. Miami enters the playoffs with Dwayne Wade missing seven of the final twelve games due to several injuries, while Chris Bosh missed the final six games of the regular season with a hamstring injury.
Even before the injuries forced Bosh and Wade out of the lineup, the Heat had trouble sustaining the play that allowed them to race out to a 28-7 start. They finished the season with a far more pedestrian 16-13 mark. The Knicks, meanwhile, started 18-24 under Mike D'Antoni, but under Mike Woodson they've been 18-6.
Both Wade and Bosh are expected to play on Saturday, but there's no telling how the layoffs will have affected them. Remember that when the Knicks first welcomed Stoudemire back last Friday in Cleveland, both he and Anthony struggled at first. The Knicks need to steal a game in Miami and hold server at home to win the series, and Game 1 might turn out to be their best opportunity.
That's not to say it will be easy. Wade has been through this many times by now, and betting against him turning up and playing well in the playoffs has usually been a mistake. And there's that LeBron James fellow, who has expressed surprise about how good he is feeling, despite the N.B.A.'s compressed season.
So the Knicks are back in that position familiar to anyone who rooted for the team during the Patrick Ewing years. They have weapons, but the best player in the league plays for the team standing in their way. We'll soon find out whether he's their new Michael Jordan, or if he's still the superstar who can't win a championship.