LeBron James and The Miami Heat are the clear-cut favorites in the Eastern Conference, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an objective NBA viewer who would disagree. At the start of the playoffs, the New York Knicks seemed like the team with the best chance to challenge Miami’s path to The Finals. After all, The Knicks burned the Heat twice by 20 points early in the season, and are responsible for three of Miami’s 16 losses.
The Knicks have a lot of firepower to match the Heat. They’re the 2nd seed in the conference and winners of 54 games. They have the leading scoring in the NBA in Carmelo Anthony, the 6th Man of the Year in JR Smith, and last season’s Defensive Player of the Year and Team USA’s starting center in Tyson Chandler. While those three don’t have the same talent or pedigree as James (about to win his 4th MVP Award in 5 seasons), Dwyane Wade (2x NBA Champion and '06 Finals MVP), and Chris Bosh (8-time All-Star and first ballot champagne showerer), they have more to match Miami than any other team in the Eastern Conference.
In the off-season, the Heat lured the NBA’s all-time 3-point leader, Ray Allen, away from their biggest rivals. While the Knicks acquired their own future-Hall-of-Fame guard, Jason Kidd, who happens to be 3rd all-time in made 3’s. Miami needed a rebounder to provide energy and toughness, so they picked up Chris Anderson mid-season. New York needed the same, so they signed Kenyon Martin.
The similarities are striking, but their major difference showed after both teams went up 3-0 on their first round opponents: Maturity.
A year removed from winning the NBA Finals, a playoff journey that began by knocking off New York in 5, the Heat maintained a very business-like attitude against the 8 seeded Milwaukee Bucks. Before the series started, Brandon Jennings prognosticated that the Bucks would beat the Heat in six games. Miami, in the most literal sense, didn’t flinch.
The Heat swept the Bucks, winning every contest by double digits, including Games 3 and 4 in Milwaukee. Their perimeter defense and ball movement did all the talking, as Miami completed their first sweep of the LeBron era.
The Knicks looked to be en route to their first trip to the 2nd round since they swept the Toronto Raptors in a best-of-five in 2000. They had a familiar foe, the Boston Celtics, on the ropes, with an opportunity to advance if they could just win Game 4 on the road. They took the floor without JR Smith, who was suspended for landing an elbow to the face of Jason Terry late in Game 3.
The result left no real cause for concern for the Knicks and their fans. They lost a highly-contested game to a desperate team on the road, but were headed back home to MSG for a crucial Game 5 with another chance to close them out. A mature, veteran team should have every reason to be confident in that situation. However, that confidence soon became cockiness and maturity became anything but.
It started with an avalanche of bulletin board material and unnecessary trash talk from JR Smith. In the off-day before Game 5, Smith remarked that if he had been on the court for Game 4, the series would have been over, and that he “would have been playing golf today.”
When prompted, he again stated, “Oh yeah, it’d have been over. It would have been.”
His arrogance and contempt continued when asked about Jason Terry. “Who? I don’t even know who that is.”
Smith didn’t stop there either. He put further pressure on himself and the Knicks with his comments about both Games 4 and 5. "I wasn't pleased with it. My teammates wasn't either. I'll get the chance to make up for it tomorrow."
"We're playing at our building. We're planning on not losing any games at our building, so I mean we've got to get this thing over as fast as we can so we can get (Jason Kidd) his rest, Melo his rest, and get prepared for the next series.”
To make matters even worse, Kenyon Martin, who had played only 23 games in a Knicks uniform, drew even more off-the-court attention to the series by stating, "We're ending it Wednesday.” He also insisted that his teammates wear black to symbolize “Funeral colors."
As a lifetime Knicks fan, NBA fan, sports fan, and advocate of common sense, it’s hard to think of anything less admirable than an organization letting two players who already have reputations as poor teammates with cancerous personalities create such irresponsible and disgraceful distractions in the media.
Mike Woodson, who’s gotten a lot of credit for helping to rehabilitate JR Smith, deserves a lion’s share of the blame for Smith’s actions on the court in Game 3, as well as his recent comments.
Jason Kidd, who reportedly encouraged the team to take a chance on Kenyon Martin, and understands the concentration and humility it takes to lead a team through the playoffs, has to stand in the way of bone-headed initiatives like “Funeral colors”.
Leadership from people like Woodson, Kidd, and Tyson Chandler has defined the winning culture New York has created this season. Going into Game 5, they appeared less like a level-headed team of smart veterans than they had all season, and it showed.
Their shaky performance seemed karmic in a way. JR Smith missed his first ten field goals, and often settled for contested jump shots. Kenyon Martin finished the game with a +/- of minus 13, and tallied two points and five fouls in thirteen minutes. Carmelo Anthony shot 8-24 and went 0-5 from 3-point range. New York never looked comfortable on offense, and their defensive rotations were nothing short of lazy. Their overall effort and attitude did nothing to portray them as a contender in the Eastern Conference, and the question now lingers as to whether the Knicks will become the first team in NBA history to lose a series after leading 3-0.
In fairness, credit must be given to Boston. They’re substantially better than the Milwaukee team the Heat faced in Round 1. In Games 4 and 5, they went back to sharing the ball and playing to their strengths offensively, which proved successful for them after Rajon Rondo’s mid-season injury. Brandon Bass has done a great job guarding Carmelo Anthony, and Jeff Green and Jason Terry have proved themselves as reliable scoring options. Kevin Garnett made big plays for the Celtics on both ends of the floor, and Paul Pierce played better than his 6-19 stat line would indicate (mainly because he was 4-8 from downtown).
Despite being the deeper, more talented and athletically gifted team, the Knicks gave back every advantage they had by being less disciplined and poised than their counterparts.
On Thursday, Mike Woodson acknowledged his team’s all black attire, saying that it made him “a little upset” and that he “addressed that”.
"I made reference to our guys, you need to stay out of the papers and just concentrate on playing. That's not important. What you're wearing doesn't have anything to do with how you play on the basketball floor,” Woodson said
While the coach’s words are stern, they thinly veil the issues with poor chemistry his team has shown. Off the court, they either look arrogant or defeated, and lack the coalescing qualities found on championship teams. On the court, they refuse to share the ball, and rely heavily on isolation. This plays into the hand of the Celtics defense and further erodes the cohesiveness in the Knicks foundation.
At this point, the Miami has no reason to fear the Knicks, not as a basketball team, nor as a group of men. In all the intangible ways that New York has shown weakness, the Heat have shown strength.
Before their first playoff game, LeBron James turned off his cell phone. Just as he did last season, he vowed not to turn it back on until after the NBA Finals. His last tweet read “Zero Dark Thirty-6 Activated! I’m gone.”
The antithesis of eliminating distractions is embodied by JR Smith. After his contribution to a Knicks win in Game 2, Smith tweeted “In so tired of dudes trying to take pictures with other dudes in the club it makes me sick!
One of these men will likely be an Eastern Conference Champion in a few weeks. If maturity and professionalism are any indication, it shouldn’t be hard to tell who will wear that crown.
-J Fonts (@JohnAnthony)