10:12 am Dec. 7, 2012
Even before Thursday night's game against the Miami Heat, a 112-92 win for the Knicks, there were reasons to believe that their early-season hot streak wasn't a streak at all, but something more sustainable.
They have been winning behind patient, mistake-free offense and defense that is, if anything, a bit behind last season's pace. The three-point shooting has been quite effective, and that is largely a function of the thoughtful offense producing great looks for good shooters.
Still, that opening-night victory over the Miami Heat seemed like a fluke. The idea that the Knicks could be 20 points better than the Heat didn't seem possible. And the Heat are the major barrier for the Knicks, or any other Eastern Conference team, to reaching the N.B.A. Finals.
That game had lots of irregular aspects to it, anyway, with real questions about whether Sandy would postpone it until hours before tipoff. And it was at Madison Square Garden, while Thursday night's game was in Miami, where the Heat were 8-0 this season after posting a 28-5 record last year.
A few minutes before game-time last night, it looked like this one wouldn't be a useful barometer, anyway. Carmelo Anthony had suffered a lacerated finger diving for a loose ball late in Wednesday night's win over the Bobcats. He'd had five stitches, and tried to go, but the decision came down roughly 20 minutes before tipoff; Anthony would be a spectator.
T.N.T.'s Charles Barkley flat-out stated the Knicks had "no shot." That's not a surprise; Barkley trashes the Knicks at every opportunity. But the Heat, coming off of an embarrassing loss to the Wizards, and with last month's loss to the Knicks in mind, had multiple reasons for revenge.
LeBron James played like it, too. He scored 31 points, with his first 18 in the first half on an absurdly efficient seven shots from the field. He had ten rebounds to lead all players on both teams. He collected nine assists to also lead all players on both teams.
But he was the only one of Miami's stars who looked like one against the Knicks. Dwayne Wade shot 3-for-13, turning the ball over four times. Chris Bosh was neutralized by Tyson Chandler, and shot 3-for-12.
On the Knicks side, Raymond Felton had the game he's been having for most of the season, only slightly better. He had 27 points, a season-high, but he's also had games of 25, 23 and 21 this year. He made a season-high six three-pointers on ten attempts, with the additional shots necessary in Anthony's absence. But he's made five in a game already this year. The seven assists weren't even a new high for Felton against Miami this season; he had nine in the season opener.
He's been more than the Knicks had any reason to hope he'd be, cutting down on turnovers dramatically from past seasons while making a far better percentage of his threes even as he shoots more than he ever has.
Accordingly, the Heat moved their best defender, also LeBron James, onto Felton to try and neutralize him. That opened up the rest of the offense, with the Heat ceding open three-pointers to Steve Novak, J.R. Smith and others in a way they simply didn't during Miami's defeat of the Knicks in last season's playoffs.
The Heat looked less like the super team James, Wade and Bosh collectively created in the summer of 2010, and more like LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers teams, with an insufficient supporting cast to leverage the best player in the world into a champion.
There's no reason to expect that to last, by the way. Wade and Bosh are both having fine seasons; the Heat are usually a far more efficient offensive team than this.
They aren't, however, the elite defensive unit they were last season. When Rashard Lewis, Ray Allen and Mike Miller are all in a team's regular rotation, efficient offense, thanks to three-point shooting and the space it creates for James, Bosh and Wade, is to be expected. But so are plenty of open looks for the opposition, thanks to the presence of three shooters. It would be as if the Knicks employed three Steve Novaks in their regular rotation.
And if the Knicks had simply found a way to edge the Heat under these conditions, or on opening night, it might be easier to dismiss what they've accomplished.
But they didn't win at the buzzer. They crushed Miami, the league's most talented team, twice.
There are streaks, and then there are streaks.
Elsewhere in New York sports:
The winter meetings are over, and the Mets still have all the holes they had entering the meetings.
Kevin Youkilis is weighing the one-year, $12 million offer from the Yankees against at least one two-year offer at $16-18 million, presumably from the Cleveland Indians.
Mark Jackson and the Golden State Warriors head to Brooklyn for the first time on Friday.
Brook Lopez, however, will be out again with his foot injury.
Sebastian Le Toux, who was ineffective in his half-season with the Red Bulls, is headed back to Philadelphia in exchange for forward Josue Martinez.