Heat facing ever-changing Knicks

The question posed to LeBron James wasn't specific enough.

As the Miami Heat shifted their focus to Sunday's showdown against New York at Madison Square Garden, James was asked what he thought about the Knicks this season.

His answer: Which version of them?

“We've all seen so many different teams from the Knicks this year,” James said of a squad that has endured a coaching change and multiple lineup tweaks and altered its style of play in just the past six weeks. “We've seen them in the beginning, without [Jeremy] Lin, then with Lin in the lineup. Without Amare [Stoudemire], then with Amare. Now [Carmelo Anthony] is playing [power forward], which is a matchup problem for everybody. So it's a different team, but it's a really good team.”

To suggest the Knicks have gone through a few changes since the last time the Heat saw them in late February would be an understatement -- sort of like saying J.R. Smith has a few tattoos. A more accurate assessment would be that the Knicks have gone through a makeover wrapped around a facelift stuffed inside an in-season rebuilding job.

And through it all, James and the Heat see the Knicks as a team that has emerged as a more focused and formidable threat. The Knicks also could end up as Miami's first-round playoff opponent if the current standings in the Eastern Conference hold to form, with the Heat essentially locked in as the No. 2 seed and the Knicks sitting in seventh place.

But these aren't the Knicks who were demolished by the Heat in a 102-88 loss Feb. 23 in Miami. James said he remembers that game “like it was yesterday.” For the Heat, that previous meeting came when they were in the midst of their most dominant stretch of the season. The Knicks were the eighth of nine consecutive opponents Miami defeated by a double-digit margin, a remarkable run that ended a game after the All-Star break.

The Heat, who have gone just 15-10 since last beating New York, haven't been quite the same team since then. But then again, neither have the Knicks.

Back then, Mike D'Antoni was clinging to his job with a team deep in turmoil and beset by injuries. Now, under assistant-turned-interim coach Mike Woodson, the Knicks are rooted in accountability and have resurrected themselves into a team that seems to be peaking in time for the postseason.

Back then, Anthony was banged up and looked somewhat washed up as he struggled to find a productive role and rhythm. Now, he has regained a bit of his swagger and is back to being one of the most prolific scorers in the league, having averaged 30 points a game in April.

Back then, Linsanity engulfed New York. Now, with Lin out of the lineup and recovering from knee surgery, the backcourt hype has been all about 21 “Shump” Street. Knicks rookie Iman Shumpert has regained a prominent role in the rotation that he once lost to Lin, and has developed into a versatile defender and productive scorer. Smith, one of the league's streakiest scorers, was signed in March to provide a spark off the bench, and Steve Novak has become as lethal a 3-point threat as anyone in the NBA.

Six weeks have made a significant difference.

There are tangible results to prove it.

The Knicks were 18-24 when D'Antoni stepped down but have since gone 13-4 under Woodson, a proven defensive-minded coach who was an assistant on Detroit's 2005 championship team and later guided Atlanta to perennial playoff appearances.

New York has gone from giving up 96.5 points a game with D'Antoni as coach to allowing just 88.8 points under Woodson, the second-fewest yielded in the league over the past 17 games. The combination of the Knicks' improved play and the Heat's recent struggles on the road against playoff-caliber teams was enough to leave Miami a bit on edge entering Sunday.

Factor in the prospect of these heated rivals possibly meeting in a seven-game series at the end of the month, and it's enough to make Sunday somewhat of a statement opportunity for both teams.

“It will be a tough, tough, tough game, but it's always tough trying to get back on track,” forward Chris Bosh said of the Heat, who are 1-8 in their past nine on the road against teams with winning records. “We have a chance to get a huge road win. I wouldn't say it's daunting. We know that they're good. We know what they're capable of. That makes the importance of Sunday's game -- it increases it because it's a potential playoff matchup. We don't want them to have any confidence on us.”

Despite the chance the teams could be staring at a playoff matchup, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said there's no reason to enter the Garden with a poker face and refrain from tipping a strategic hand.

“There's no secrets in this league,” Spoelstra said. “What can you hold back? The most important thing for us anyway is we're trying to get to an optimal level of play where we're playing at a high level. We're not there yet, particularly on the road. So we're not going to keep any cards to our vest. We can't afford to do that right now.”

The Heat have outscored the Knicks by 24 points in the two wins this season. But it's possible neither team will be at full strength Sunday. Dwyane Wade (knee/ankle), Mike Miller (ankle), Ronny Turiaf (hamstring) and Udonis Haslem (stomach virus) sat out Friday's win against Charlotte. Spoelstra said he was hopeful they all would play Sunday as Miami tries to shore up its playoff rotation.

Stoudemire, who has been recovering from a back injury, resumed workouts with the Knicks this weekend but is questionable for Sunday's game. Lin likely won't return until the playoffs.

Considering where these teams were two months ago -- and where they could be headed in two weeks -- the Heat and Knicks have reached a crossroads along their collision course. Miami is looking to regain its February form. New York has been working to distance itself from the team it was back then.

For James, keeping track of the ever-changing Knicks presented one challenge entering Sunday.

Finding an answer for his team's recent road woes could be an even bigger chore.

“Every team has that one point where they have that streak and everything is clicking,” James said. “We can go back over that film and watch what we were doing great. We were defending great. We were running out. We were getting fast-break points. We were very aggressive. We can get back to that. But at the same time, we want to continue to work forward ... and get ready for the postseason.”