- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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This is not the late '90s, and these Miami Heat are not built around the hopelessly flawed pairing that was Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway. If LeBron James and Dwyane Wade still need some work on their game-day symmetry, they should not be mistaken for a couple of first-round fall guys.
So the New York Knicks need to stay right where they are, in the Eastern Conference eight hole, and take their longshot chances with the Chicago Bulls. This was the moral of the story from Heat 93, Knicks 85, no matter what the most hopeful voices were selling on the losing side of the Garden.
"I think it's going to be a different story during the postseason," J.R. Smith said.
"It definitely hurts," Baron Davis said of the defeat, "but I like our chances against this team."
I don't. For all their real and imagined struggles, for all the numbers suggesting that James and his team have been better off when Wade's been out, the Heat still represent the one team the Knicks should avoid like, you know, a pep talk from Mike D'Antoni.
Sunday, James was good for 29 points, 10 rebounds and 3 assists, and Wade was good for 28 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists, the two of them raging against the notion that their partnership is so imperfect that Pat Riley might have to break it up in the event of another unhappy playoff ending.
Of course, the Heat can blame themselves for the mere thought. James and Wade mocked Dirk Nowitzki with their fake coughs for the cameras in June, and then gagged away a NBA Finals that was theirs. This time around, they staggered into the Garden with 10 defeats in their previous 24 games, a 4-4 record in April, and an alarming recent history of losing road games to anyone worth a damn.
But Sunday was a day for the Heat to change the narrative, to suggest that they've been succumbed to regular-season boredom, nothing more. Understanding that they might face the Knicks in Round 1, and realizing that they needed to revive themselves sooner than later, the Heat turned a one-point game with six minutes left into a term paper on why Knicks fans should be hoping and praying for the Bulls.
James removed his mouthpiece when called for a questionable offensive foul, leaving him with that beleaguered, collapse-here-I-come look on his fourth-quarter face. But with the Garden anticipating a 10th consecutive home victory under Mike Woodson, the Knicks folded instead.
While Tyson Chandler was committing a three-second violation and Smith and Carmelo Anthony were missing 3-pointers, Wade and James nailed the jumpers that effectively killed the home team's hopes of winning the division and escaping the prison that is the eighth or seventh seed.
"I don't even know what happened," said Anthony, who scored 42 but made only two field goals in the fourth. "It just happened so fast."
Down Amare Stoudemire (for now) and Jeremy Lin, the Knicks don't have the firepower to stay with a serious contender like the Heat. Anthony had 29 points early in the third quarter when the Knicks suddenly, shockingly, forgot all about him, going nearly five and a half minutes without scoring a basket and without getting Melo a meaningful touch.
When Anthony had it rolling, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said, "the basket looked like an ocean to him." But LeBron, who entered with a 5-9 head-to-head record against Anthony, remained true to a defensive plan that he felt contributed to Melo's 2-for-7 in the fourth.
"They're going to make shots," James said of Anthony and other elite scorers, "and hopefully down the stretch you try to continue to wear on them, and hopefully they start to miss a few. That's what I was able to do. I was just trying to be aggressive on Carmelo."
It worked, sort of, even if 42 points is 42 points. "Their one great player played great," said Wade, who left unspoken the fact that Miami doesn't need to rely on one great player.
Meanwhile, Chicago looks a little more like the Knicks, with one big-time star and a supporting cast of good-not-greats. Derrick Rose also happens to be banged up, forcing the Bulls to will their way to the No. 1 seed on defense, passion and guile. And coaching. Tom Thibodeau is about as good as it gets.
But seriously, who would you rather face in a best-of-seven series, Rose and Thibodeau or James and Wade?
"I think we match up with [the Heat] well," Davis said. "We're up for the challenge. We like the attention, and we like playing against that team."
Davis reasoned that the Heat have been healthier than the Knicks, allowing the top seed to establish an identity that has eluded the bottom seed. If Stoudemire makes a relatively seamless return before the playoffs, Davis said, "We'll be just as good as anybody."
Either way, the Knicks won't be as good as the Heat, or the Bulls for that matter. Look at the standings.
"We feel very confident going against anybody right now," Melo maintained, "regardless of who it is. Our confidence is sky high."
But one year later, Miami is still the same team that tore through the 2011 Eastern Conference tournament, allowing the Sixers, Celtics and Bulls a combined three victories. No matter what happened against Dallas in the NBA Finals, the intensity, selflessness and athleticism Miami showed in those first three rounds shouldn't be forgotten.
So the Knicks should do something they didn't dare do in Michael Jordan's day. Hope for the Bulls, and hope for the best.
'Bockers fans had better hope and pray for the Chicago Bulls in Round 1.