NBA 1st Round Preview: Miami-New York

The matchup that ABC/ESPN are salivating for in the NBA’s first round is the New York Knicks taking on the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference. There’s two superstars under siege, in Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, a coaching situation up in the air in New York and another one in Miami that will be if the Heat don’t win it all. And the Knicks playing well down the stretch while the Heat struggled have given rise to thoughts that an upset could be in the works. Can 7th-seeded New York really pull an outright series win on 2-seed Miami? TheSportsNotebook previews the action…

Any success the Knicks have is going to have be down low. This team had problems at the point early on, started 7-13, was briefly rescued by Jeremy Lin before he went down for the season. With the playoffs looking shaky, Carmelo Anthony then stepped up his game, but it can’t obscure the fact this backcourt is not playoff-caliber. Baron Davis can be called slightly above average in running the offense, but at age 33 he was much better suited to be Lin’s backup. J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert are tolerable and Landry Fields has yet to full his potential, although he is only 23.

This backcourt is the worst in the playoff field and bailed out because the frontcourt is championship-caliber, with Melo knocking down 22 a night at small forward, a healthy Amare Stoudamire at power forward and Tyson Chandler rebounding, blocking shots, chipping in some scoring help and bringing the benefit of his title experience in Dallas last year to the table. The big issue the team is going to face is that Stoudamire is just getting integrated back into the lineup and how well he and Melo could share floor space and the ball has been an overriding concern on this team.

Miami was 28-7 at the end of February, but hasn’t clicked these last two months, going 18-13 and losing games to legitimate contenders at an alarming rate. The Heat were called out on national television by no less an authority than Magic Johnson, who said championship teams can send a message during the regular season and the Heat’s failure to do represents trouble. The criticisms of big-game performance have trailed LeBron since last year’s Finals, but he still averaged 27 ppg and shot better than 50 percent from the floor. He helped carry the Heat while Dwayne Wade played his way through a season marked by nagging injuries. Wade still knocked down 22 a game in his own right. And Chris Bosh came in for some needless criticism. A line common among media pundits was about Miami’s Big Three was really a Big Two. On the surface I don’t disagree with the notion that Bosh isn’t on the same level of LeBron and Wade. But that’s a credit to the latter two, not a knock on Bosh. At least it should be, and it wasn’t how the commentary came off. Miami’s power forward has managed to be an underrated 18/8 man.

The Heat have been let down by the failure of the supporting cast. Mario Challmes hasn’t shot the three-pointer well, the inside game of Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony has been a major disappointment and Shane Battier has shown that the notion of “veteran intangibles” can be overrated when they’re not accompanied by actual production.  The pressure on LeBron, Wade and Bosh to carry this team are even bigger this year than they were a season ago.

An improvement in three-point shooting from Challmes would go a long way to helping Miami play to their reputation. On the other side, if New York’s going to make this a real series they’ll need some three-point gunning of their own from Steve Novak. Ultimately though, I’m not high on the Knicks’ chances to do much here. They had similar high hopes going to Boston a year ago when the Celtics came straggling into the playoffs and got sent home four straight. The backcourt play is too iffy and the cohesiveness of the frontline too shaky to think this team could even manage to split the first four games, the basic requisite to making it a competitive series. I’ll take it a step further and say New York says goodbye in four straight again, giving a boost to LeBron, along with the calls for the Knicks to get Phil Jackson on the bench.