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NEW YORK -- Whether it was truly a test or merely a pop quiz -- depending on which member of the New York Knicks you spoke to, you heard both descriptions -- the grade they received was no higher than a D.
If they gave D-minuses or F-pluses, those might be more apt.
The Knicks came crashing back to reality on a Friday night at Madison Square Garden that was a tale of two halves: a first half in which the building rocked and partied like it hadn't since 1999, and a second half that looked all too much like what a majority of the games over the past decade have looked like -- not even worth staying until the end.
The exit ramps and stairwells were a stream of humanity with three minutes left in the fourth quarter of what ended up as a 113-91 loss to the Miami Heat, the reality of how good these Knicks truly are -- and how far they still have to go to compete with the NBA's best -- hitting the home team and the home fans over the head like an anvil dropped from six stories above.
|When LeBron James and the Heat clamped down, Raymond Felton's Knicks had no room to move.|
When the Heat wanted to keep the ball out of Amare Stoudemire's hands, they did. When Miami forced he ball out of Raymond Felton's hands, he didn't get it back. When the fatigue of trying to defend LeBron James caught up with Danilo Gallinari in the third quarter, he was done.
And so were the Knicks after that fateful period, when Miami outscored New York 33-17 to turn a game that was tied at halftime into the 10th double-digit blowout the Heat have had in their past 11 games -- all of them victories.
Simply put, there was only one elite team -- and that team sent a resounding message to a Knicks squad that had quickly come to the false belief over the course of accumulating 13 wins in their past 15 games that they could compete with anybody. Coach Mike D'Antoni even used those exact words prior to the game in assessing the relative strength of his team.
But when the Heat focused their minds on keeping the Knicks from dictating the pace and tempo of the game, the Knicks had no viable Plan B.
"Our guys have a lot of pride on that end of the floor. We did not feel good coming into halftime about giving up that many easy shots," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of his team's defense. "They got into a great rhythm, and you've got to give them credit -- they are a tough team to defend. But in the second half we got back to doing what we do, and we understand what our identity is and settled into our game."
This loss was so much more painful to the Knicks than the one they endured two nights earlier, when they led for most of the game against the Boston Celtics and put up 116 points on the NBA's No. 1 defense but lost by two points.
This one was so much more demoralizing because it marked the first time in a month that the Knicks were dominated so decisively, letting a close game slip out of their hands over the course of just 10 minutes.
When the third quarter began, it was 57-57. But when James hit a pull-up 20 footer for his ninth and 10th points of a period in which he would score 14 (on his way to a triple-double of 32 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists), the Heat's lead was up to 18 and the energy that had infused the building in the first half was sucked dry.
"I was worried about that emotional letdown. Once we lost it, we couldn't get it back," D'Antoni said. "It's just where we are right now, and we will have to get better and we will. We did run out of some steam."
So the Knicks are three games into an eight-game stretch in which seven matchups will be against truly elite teams, and New York has a 1-2 record to show for it. Their only gimme comes Saturday night in Cleveland against a Cavs team that has lost 10 straight -- but it isn't going to be a gimme if the bad karma that deadened the Garden in the second half can't be shaken off in less than 24 hours.
After the Cleveland game, New York finishes the month with games against the Thunder, Bulls, Heat and Magic -- a series of pop quizzes and/or tests that will go a long way toward determining whether they Knicks are still one superstar (Carmelo Anthony) away from being able to compete with the best, or whether the improvement they had shown over the preceding three weeks can somehow be recaptured and reincorporated into their game.
By Jan. 1, an accurate reading on how good they are can better be made.
"It's been a long week, and in this game we didn't run in the second half like we normally do," said Stoudemire, who scored 24, ending his streak of 30-point games at nine. "We understand we're not far away, but we have to improve.
"We understand that now. Playing these guys was a learning lesson for us. We've got to learn from this game," Stoudemire said. "I think Boston's the team to get through right now, but Miami's playing well. They've got three good scorers, but again, we're right there. It's a matter of us getting better defensively."
Sorry, Amare. You were right there two nights earlier against Boston, but you certainly weren't Friday night against the Heat.
Again, this was either going to end up being the "Dream Week" some were touting it as or the "Reality Check Week" that others warned about.
The latter title certainly seems more fitting.
And if the reality checks continue to keep coming over the rest of December, the Knicks are either going to decide they can live with being the fourth- or fifth-best team in the conference, or they can ramp up their efforts to acquire that second superstar player that could elevate them to the elite.
Right now, they are only e-lite (pronounced ee-light). And as we saw Friday night, ee-light is nowhere near the level of the legitimately elite.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.