- Stephen A. Smith, ESPNNewYork.com columnist
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Minutes after walking back into their locker room demoralized, shaken and flummoxed by yet another loss to New York, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade appeared in sync and unified -- visually different than they appeared while on the floor together during the previous 48 minutes.
James used words like "smashed" and "embarrassed." Wade simply uttered, "We got beat. No excuses." But as the dynamic duo drifted into the night, not needing the spotlights of South Beach to shine a light on the beatdown they'd just endured, it was clear the Heat have resigned themselves to a reality the rest of us may have to embrace quickly, assuming we haven't already:
The New York Knicks are coming.
They are coming for supremacy in New York. They are coming for the Atlantic Division crown. They are coming for a top-four seed in the East and home-court advantage in a first-round playoff series, at least. And with the Heat standing in everyone's way, evidently the Knicks are coming for the champions, too.
"They stomped us," James deadpanned after the game. "What else can you say?"
On a night Carmelo Anthony didn't suit up due to a lacerated left middle finger, "it didn't matter that I wasn't going to play," as Anthony said. "I told you, we're locked in. This team is not the same team. It's just one game. There's a lot more to go. But the fact that we all know this and play that way should tell you ... we're coming."
The time for hope concerning the Knicks was completely eviscerated at approximately 10:58 p.m. Thursday, hope being officially usurped by expectations. Some might say it's easy to express bravado after registering a 112-92 victory -- a second 20-point win over the defending champions in as many meetings this season -- but they would be missing the point.
Forget, for one moment, that the Knicks connected on 18 of 44 3-pointers. That Raymond Felton led the way by hitting six treys en route to finishing with 27 points, seven assists and just three turnovers in 35 minutes. In the end, it really doesn't matter that Steve Novak pumped in 18 points off the bench, that J.R. Smith and Rasheed Wallace added 13 and 12, respectively, or even that the Knicks pounced on, suffocated and ultimately demoralized the best team in the league.
It's how the Knicks did it that matters right now.
The Knicks couldn't be stopped Thursay night because Felton, whose apparent tutelage by Jason Kidd has made Jeremy Lin a distant memory, fulfilled his No. 1 responsibility. He penetrated at will. Assisted Kidd in moving the basketball.
The result was a bevy of open shots for the Knicks -- fueled more by them playing sound, unselfish basketball rather than lethargy and apathy on the part of Miami.
"We can guard better, there is no doubt about that," Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. "But there's no doubt they are significantly better than they were. Their movement of the basketball is exceptionally [good] and they don't hesitate to pull the trigger. The thing is, they don't just jack up shots.
"One rotation. Two rotations. Three rotations. Whatever it takes to find shooters, they'll do it. They've just bought into whatever their coach is selling, obviously. They're playing very unselfish. And we don't have a choice now but to take notice."
Of course, the argument can be made that the Heat are only struggling right now because "that's life for a defending world champion," as James said. "Every night people are going to take their best shots at you, do things they normally don't do. I watched tape of the Knicks the night before against Charlotte. They missed a bunch of shots then that they made [Thursday]. That's how it goes."
Except James knows Miami's problems run far deeper.
Wade is simply not himself. He's not healthy, no matter what he says. His knees are still giving him trouble.
In a perfect world, Wade will eventually return to the Wade of old -- using the same trainers and workout regimen he used to make himself a $100 million baller instead of bicycling and boxing with James like he's been doing the last couple of years.
Wade is still a superstar. He's still an elite player, capable of playing the catalyst role on another title run -- but only when healthy, which he is not. At some point in time, Wade needs to ask himself: Why is Kobe Bryant -- with 17 seasons under his belt and more than 51,000 minutes played in his career -- healthier than Wade, who's only in his 10th season, with a little more than 27,000 minutes of mileage on his body?
Until then, since Wade isn't healthy, neither are the Heat. Everything is left for James to handle, and he can't win another ring in Miami all by his lonesome.
"We know who we are, what we're capable of, what we're dealing with," James said. "We'll get back to practice and fix things, because clearly there are things we need to fix."
The thing is, even if things get fixed, the Heat still have created another problem for themselves by allowing hunters like the Knicks to see their vulnerabilities -- which specifically include their lack of depth and size, to go along with Wade's health issues.
"We're not worried about the Heat," Knicks coach Mike Woodson said. "We know who they are, so it's about who we are and what we want. We've made our goals clear. Whoever's in the way is who we'll have to challenge. So be it. That's why we play these games."
Beautiful words. And then some.
Even better, such words were echoed by the Heat.
Once upon a time.