If the Knicks remain at one of the two lowest seeds, which is likely, many people believe the Bulls with a gimpy Derrick Rose will be a slightly easier opponent than the star-studded Heat in the first round of the playoffs.
But the Knicks' centerpiece, Carmelo Anthony, isn't backing down from the Heat. It's a matchup he's looking forward to.
"It'll be a fun series, I'll tell you that," Melo said Monday on ESPN New York 1050's "Mike & Mike in the Morning." Just to be a part of that and go up against them guys, it's always fun, it's always exciting, it's always intense. And the guys on my team, to where we're at right now, and the identify of our team that we have, we're not going to be an easy matchup."
Anthony especially enjoys going up against LeBron James, a player he's faced since high school and who came out of the same draft class in 2003. James was selected first by the Cavaliers; Anthony went third to the Nuggets. During the game on Sunday, those smiles translated to a game of trying to match each other offensively, an element that would make a Knicks-Heat series competitive with the two best players on the court going at it.
"It was just fun, man," Anthony said, referring to yesterday's contest. "He comes down and he hit a couple of big shots and I started laughing. And then I come down and hit some shots and start laughing. We've been going up against each other since the 10th, 11th grade. We go way back playing against each other and those games are always fun. We bring the best out of each other."
Another element that would allow the Knicks to keep up with the Heat is their defense, which Dwyane Wade called "improved" after Sunday's game. Anthony said making stops has been their MO since Mike Woodson took over the team on March 14, a span during which they've held opponents to 89.1 points per game -- the third-best mark in the league.
"I think just a different mentality, a defensive mentality to us winning games," Anthony said. "We've won games on the defensive end. Now, even when we have off nights on the offensive end, we're still able to grind games out, will games to win."
Before Tyson Chandler was limited with a left knee injury on Sunday, which happened in the third quarter, he was able to use his quickness to provide excellent helpside defense in the paint. But then the Defensive Player of the Year candidate left the game to receive ice treatment on the bruise, which opened doors for the Heat. Chandler was limping the rest of the game, and Chris Bosh started hitting close-range shots (six points in the final period) and then Wade made two running jumpers in the lane -- the last one putting the Heat up 91-82 with 2:15 to play.
But when the Knicks are at full strength, they have the defensive abilities to go toe-to-toe with any team, like they were doing for three and a half quarters on Sunday. What's especially helped is that Anthony is not over-compensating his offense by showing lapses on defense -- something he's been known to do in the past.
"I think it's just more of [Woodson] holding me more accountable and my teammates," he said. "In order for us to be successful, why not step it up on the defensive end? The way my teammates have been playing on that side of the ball, I didn't want to feel left out and not doing what I had to do by not playing defense. It does become fun after a while when we stop guys and we get out in transition and get easy baskets. It makes the game fun."
In the end, the Knicks suffered on Sunday by not having enough scoring beyond Anthony. That will change when Amare Stoudemire returns, although Anthony himself is not even sure when that will be. He has, however, heard that STAT is doing extremely well in his recent workouts.
"[Stoudemire] just gives us some better options," Anthony said. "It gives us another presence out there. It brings us one of our key players, one of our leaders, back to the team. We can't wait until he gets back."
Stoudemire's injury (not to mention, Jeremy Lin's) represented just another major compelling story line surrounding the Knicks. From the team acquiring Chandler to Lin's sudden surge to Mike D'Antoni stepping down, it's already felt like a few seasons wrapped into one.
"It's been a roller-coaster season, man," Anthony said. "There have been a lot of changes with the team, with the coaching, with guys coming in and out, so it's been a lot of adjustments for everybody. But right now, I'm glad that we're able to just come together and stick together and fight through that whole period and still be where we're at right now."
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