Yes, the Knicks lost on Monday to the lowly Nets but they rallied with an impressive rout of the Hawks on Wednesday where they showed signs of Carmelo Anthony, J. R. Smith, and Baron Davis adjusting Linsanity. Yet despite the massive hype surrounding New York during the last two weeks, facing the Heat in Miami is the best chance yet for the Knicks to prove that their recent spectacular successes are legit.
At this point in the season, the Heat have their collective mojo working and, thus far, are the best team in the East if not the entire league. Their three leading lights are in synch, and their supporting players are likewise at the top of their respective games. Miami’s aim is to stuff Linsanity into a straitjacket.
HOW THE KNICKS CAN WIN
Jeremy Lin must hit his perimeter jumpers, repeatedly penetrate and make accurate kick-out or drop-passes, generally keep the ball moving, and play a modicum of man-to-man defense. While he’s far from being a speedster, Lin can read defenses and anticipate where the driving lanes will materialize. Once these openings manifest, Lin’s long strides, slick left-to-right crossovers, and ability to find air-space at the rim are virtually unstoppable. If his straight-up defense is merely ordinary, Lin’s quick hands and extraordinary help-decisions enable him to come up with frequent steals and run-outs. In any event, Mario Chalmers isn’t the kind of dreadnaught scorer who can consistently embarrass Lin.
- Although ‘Melo will need more time to get in gear after his long layoff, he remains the most versatile scorer in the game — able to rack up points from far, near, and all points in between. Even as he readjusts to NBA action, Anthony will at least compel LeBron James to fully exert himself on defense. More importantly, despite his insistence that he be the one to take every last do-or-die shot, it’s incumbent upon Anthony to accept the fact that the Knicks are now Lin’s team.
- Amar’e Stoudemire has already made accommodations with the Knicks new look. Except for a few pin-downs and pops, precious few plays are now run for him. Indeed, Stoudemire scores most of his points off ball — and — player movement, and on put-backs. He has to at least match the point production of Chris Bosh, certainly not an unimaginable circumstance.
- Landry Fields starts at the shooting-guard slot and is on the short-end of a matchup against Dwayne Wade. Fields’ talents as a baseline slasher will be rendered useless by Miami’s highly coordinated interior defensive rotations. What will be available are open 3-point shots and opportunities to run himself into easy scores.
- Smith, who will get most of the daylight in place of Fields and can also backup Anthony, is a dynamic (if erratic) scorer. Smith has no trouble getting a makeable shot off under the tightest defensive pressure, and his range approaches basketball-infinity. Still, he has a penchant for taking too many ill-advised shots, which makes him the kind of player who can keep both teams in the game. On defense, he compensates for his considerable flaws by fiercely attacking inbound passes.
- Tyson Chandler is the backbone of New York’s defense. Since Joel Anthony’s meager offensive skills can be ignored, look for Stoudemire to be given this lightweight defensive responsibility and for Chandler to spend most of his time guarding Bosh. This is an advantageous matchup for the Knicks, forcing Bosh to live or die by his mid-range jumper — and therefore keeping him away from the offensive glass. Also, Chandler can run the court like a guard, adding a fifth dimension to New York’s uptempo game.
- Jared Jeffries‘ length, experience and diligent defense will also serve to diminish Bosh’s impact.
- Any meaningful production from the ghost of Davis will be a huge plus.
- Whenever Steve Novak misses a 3-ball, the area’s seismographs must be consulted to check for minor tremors that shook the rim. Lin always knows where Novak is, and so should the Heat.
- In the unfriendly environment of the AmericanAirlines Arena, the Knicks must stretch Miami’s defense to the breaking point by burying a high percentage of their treys.
- With fantastical emergence of Lin, the Knicks can score with anybody, and their defense is tighter than it has been in recent memory. Still, they must make quicker and more precise defensive recoveries after executing double-teams, the bigs must avoid overreacting to dribble penetrations, and one and all must fully exert themselves in defensive transitions.
- The Knicks will certainly not be intimidated by the Heat, yet they will need to maintain their focus and their energy from the opening tip to the final buzzer.
HOW THE HEAT CAN WIN
Lin has some serious holes in his game that can be attacked. For example, he drives right about 90 percent of the time; after his right-to-left crossover the ball is too high and far away from his body; his pull-up jumpers going left are mostly bricks; his left-handed finishes are simplistic which force him to come back with his right hand under pressure; his interior passing is somewhat shaky when surrounded by trees in the shadow in the basket; and, as Deron Williams demonstrated on Monday, his defense can be attacked for profit by a skilled point-maker.
- LBJ will have his way with ‘Melo’s haphazard defense, but he must hit his jumpers. Also, James has the size, strength, and willingness to bother Anthony’s still-recuperating offensive skills. James must minimize his domination of the ball and make quick decisions to keep New York’s defense always on the move — and therefore liable to make mistakes.
- Wade can take the ball wherever he pleases when tagged by Fields — and even more so when guarded by Smith. Yet, like LeBron, he must avoid overhandling the rock. At the other end, Wade is nothing less than a stopper who can reduce both Fields and Smith to afterthoughts.
- Neither Bosh nor Stoudemire can effectively defend one another. When matched up against Chandler, Bosh will have to discomfort NY’s big man by moving away from the basket and knocking down mid- and even long-range jumpers.
- Chalmers is more of a shooting guard than a point guard, so attacking Lin’s quick-handed defense (and Davis’ invisible defense) is what he really wants to do. However, he will need considerable help on defense when Lin is presented with perpetual high-screens.
- Joel Anthony has the bounce, the skills, and the willpower to negate Stoudemire’s offense, and also to cover lots of ground in defending the baseline as well as screen/rolls.
- Mike Miller’s long-distance dialing has to make the Knicks pay dearly for focusing their defense on LeBron and/or D-Wade.
- Shane Battier can provide gritty defense against either ‘Melo or Amar’e. Moreover, Stoudemire’s inability to complete complicated passes makes him an attractive target for quick double-teams.
- Norris Cole’s attitude is when-in-doubt-air-it-out. A certain amount of confusion is understandable in a rookie, but he has to be more conscious of the shot-clock when launching precipitous 3-balls.
- As good as Miami’s defense can be there is still room for improvement. Since they are often too ball-centric they are vulnerable to backdoor cuts. Their transition defense can’t depend on someone (like LeBron) making sensational chase-down blocks—overall team hustle is necessary here. Bosh has to curtail his propensity to wander and turn his head when he’s playing off-ball defense.
- The Heat have to take better care of the ball than they usually do. Guys like Smith and Lin are steal-conscious and yielding too many easy scores could be disastrous in a competitive game.
- Miami should view this game as an opportunity to knock down-and-out a team of pretenders who falsely believe they can contend for mastery in the Eastern Conference.
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR
- Plenty of cross-matches, the most important one being Wade guarding Lin.
- Where in Carmelo the Knicks have only one dangerous post-up player, the Heat have LeBron, Bosh, and Wade. This means New York must resort to frequent double-downs which, once out- and reversal-passes are executed, makes closing out perimeter shooters difficult. Look for Miami to get more uncontested long-ball opportunities than New York.
- During his remarkable resurgence, Lin has averaged about 37 minutes per game—which is too much for someone who is constantly playing with or against the ball. Look for him to be weary by the endgame.
- Miami wants to avoid getting dragged into a bang-it-out halfcourt game and, when Lin gets a blow on the bench, so do the Knicks. Points off turnovers might well be the deciding statistic.
- Will Carmelo move without the ball and move the ball quickly? Or will he revert to his stationary, iso-minded, sticky fingered habits?
Charley Rosen is a former pro basketball player and coach and author of 16 books on basketball.