Ahead of Heat-Knicks on Sunday, we thought we'd get the point of view from Madison Square Garden. Here's the report from ESPNNewYork.com's Jared Zwerling. (For the corresponding Heat perspective, head to their blog.)
1. The Knicks are playing great ball on both ends of the floor. Who deserves the most credit for the turnaround?
No question, Mike Woodson. Offensively, he's helped Carmelo Anthony flourish, getting him the ball more quickly in halfcourt sets in his sweet spots -- in the midrange and post-up areas -- and he's capitalizing there. Under Mike D'Antoni, because the offense was predicated more on the pick-and-roll, there was some delay in getting Anthony the ball. Now, he's the immediate focal point in the offense, which has been enhanced with Jeremy Lin and Amare Stoudemire inactive due to injuries since March 26.
Since then, his health is also a big reason why he's been shooting nearly 50 percent (49.8) from the field, averaging 28.8 points per game. He had been dealing with injuries to his groin and right wrist (his shooting hand), but he said earlier this week that he now feels the best he's been all season. That's one of the main reasons why no team wants to face the Knicks in the opening round of the playoffs (not to mention, Madison Square Garden is a challenging place to play for a road team). Melo is one of the best scorers in the league, and he's extremely clutch.
Defensively, that's Woodson's MO. It goes back to his days in Detroit, where he won a title with the Pistons in 2004, and that's why D'Antoni hired him to be his defensive coordinator, if you will, before the season started. The Knicks had improved defensively before D'Antoni stepped down on March 14, but with Woodson at the helm, they've taken it a step further, holding opponents to 88.8 points per game since then -- the second-best mark in the league (after the Bulls' 88.6) during that span. Woodson's no-nonsense personality, stressing accountability at all times, has fueled the Knicks to button up their defense. And the players have bought in, especially because they know they need to fight their way out of the two lowest spots in the East playoff picture.
To understand some of the finer details of the adjustments Woodson has made, here's a great quote from Steve Novak, which he gave me on Friday: "I think when [Woodson] first took over, more than anything he really just set an intensity of defense that we played. And just like the team togetherness. If a guy gets beat, it's like somebody's right there. Everybody finds a way to get stops. Comfort and communication is a big part of it, too, because sometimes when you switch, it's like should we or should we not? As the season's gone on, I think we've gotten a feel for each other. I think that's evolved."
2. How have the Knicks community dealt with the team's resurgence without Amare Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin on the court? Has it been confusing, bittersweet or just plain exciting?
Exciting. Here's the bottom line: The Knicks community just wants to see winning basketball. They don't care what it takes. They are a frustrated bunch, with the team getting so close in 1999 to a championship (their last one was in 1973) and then having ups and downs in the past decade with Isiah Thomas leading the way as head coach and president of basketball operations. Of course, there's added excitement with the likely return of Stoudemire next week and Lin possibly coming back at the start of the second round of the playoffs. But the Knicks need to move up to the sixth seed for that happen, because they are not beating the Bulls or Heat in a seven-game series.
3. From where you stand, would the Knicks rather face a Bulls team led by a gimpy Derrick Rose or a stumbling Heat team in the first-round of the playoffs?
Jared Jeffries said on Friday that the Bulls would be a better matchup for the Knicks because of a gimpy Derrick Rose. And I agree with him. The Heat have just way too much firepower to lose a seven-game series. They can come at you in so many different ways. On the flip side, the Knicks don't have a lot of firepower right now, and they'll still be a bit short-handed entering the playoffs with a less than 100 percent Stoudemire and a hobbled Baron Davis. Every game, Anthony will be asked to put up close to 30 points for the Knicks to have a shot, especially because the Knicks' current secondary scorers (J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert) are still too inconsistent right now.
With not a lot of practice time during the shortened season, it's been hard for basically a new-look Knicks team since December to build cohesion. And that's something, to me, the Heat still have, especially having nearly two seasons under their belt. They will turn it on when the playoffs start. I have no doubt in my mind that they will return to the NBA Finals. After losing to the Dallas Mavericks last year, the Heat will be on -- as they say at the American Airlines Arena -- starting at the end of April.