NEW YORK -- Sunday afternoon is the last time the Heat and Knicks are scheduled to play each other this season. But when the teams line up at Madison Square Garden (1 p.m. ET, ABC), they’ll do so knowing this is a legitimate playoff preview.
There’s wiggle room in the standings with just less than two weeks left to sort it out, but right now the Heat and Knicks would be first-round playoff combatants. That would easily be the Eastern Conference’s most interesting series because of the star power, fan interest and upset potential that exists.
Here are five reasons fans should hope Sunday's game is just an appetizer:
1. The LeBron James-Carmelo Anthony power forward duel. It looks like Amare Stoudemire is on track to be back for the playoffs so Anthony might return to starting at his more natural small forward spot. But with all the success the Knicks have had playing smaller with Anthony at power forward, you can bet he will still get significant minutes there. So will James, who has been playing power forward throughout the season for the Heat.
The two always are an intense matchup, and seeing James and Anthony battle it out against each other at power forward would create an element we haven’t seen before. Likely it would mean more post play plus a serious test at the defensive end for both players.
2. Home-court dominators. One of the reasons this would have the potential to be a long series is both teams have been great on their home floor and not so good on the road. The Heat own the league’s best home record at 25-4, including a 2-0 mark against the Knicks. New York, though, has been the league’s best home-court team over the past month by winning its past nine at MSG.
The Heat have well-known issues on the road and are just 1-8 in their past nine road games against current playoff teams. The Knicks, meanwhile, have just 11 road wins, which is currently last among all teams in playoff position.
3. Coach pressure. Mike Woodson has transformed the Knicks since taking over from Mike D’Antoni, going 13-4 and improving the Knicks' defense vastly. But with numerous big names potentially interested in the position this summer, Woodson might be coaching for his job in a series such as this. If he can pull off an upset against a team such as Miami, he probably will win the job full time.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has one of the most pressure-filled jobs in the league. His decision to go from a “grind the game” approach last season to a “pace and space” attack with a gambling style on defense this season has yielded mixed results. He’s been constantly changing his lineups recently in an attempt to find a mixture that works for the postseason. If he can’t get the Heat out of their recent funk, he’s going to be under extreme scrutiny.
4. The Chandler effect. Dirk Nowitzki won the MVP and Jason Terry won fans’ hearts but Tyson Chandler had a huge role in leading the Mavericks over the Heat in last year’s Finals. His ability to protect the rim and change shots arrested the Heat’s penetrating offense and contributed to the struggles James had getting to the rim. In a defining moment in Game 4, he took a charge from James on a potential 3-point play that went a long way to deciding that series-altering game.
Now he’s in New York and having a fantastic defensive season again. With the Knicks excelling by playing at a slower pace and willing to win games in the half-court, James and Dwyane Wade will have to challenge him in the paint.
5. Novak vs. Heat’s 3-point defense. Garden darling Steve Novak is currently second in the league in 3-point shooting at just less than 46 percent. The Heat rank 28th in defending the 3-pointer, their greatest defensive weakness. Novak is known for getting hot and being forgotten about as defenses focus on Anthony and Stoudemire on the interior. Along with J.R. Smith, another player with a reputation for hitting 3-pointers in bunches, Novak and the Heat dealing with their 3-point issues could end up being a crucial X factor in a Heat-Knicks series.