With the way the Miami Heat have played over the past two months, having won 29 of 30 games, it would be assumed opponents would be interested in avoiding them.
“That’s what you assume?” New York Knicks forward Kenyon Martin said to a New York Times reporter when the topic of the Heat’s dominance was brought up Sunday night after the Knicks' eighth straight win. “You know what assuming do, right?”
But the Knicks seem to be making an assumption of their own regarding the Heat, who they visit in Miami on Tuesday night. It won't be the kind of statement game New York was hoping for as the Heat have decided to hold out LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers with minor injuries, a decision that robs the game of any teeth.
It probably won't change the Knicks' thinking, though. Despite battling injuries and defensive issues and playing .500 ball over the past three months, the Knicks have always harbored a belief they owned an edge on the defending champs.
It was buoyed by two blowout wins over the Heat during the first weeks of the season and, apparently, not dulled by the Heat’s six-point win at Madison Square Garden during Miami's 27-game win streak. The Knicks had a huge lead in that game before the Heat made a comeback and held on at the end on the strength of a trademark LeBron James performance.
“We’re definitely one of the teams who gave Miami the most fits this year, so if we get the opportunity to play them in the [Eastern Conference] finals, then I kinda like our chances,” Knicks guard Raymond Felton told ESPN New York last week. “I love our chances, actually. ... I just feel like we really cause matchup problems for them offensively, and then we match up well with them defensively. Like I said, I like our chances.”
Those quotes quickly made their way to the Heat locker room, as did some of Felton’s comments dissing Heat point guard Mario Chalmers. Felton said: “If you look at LeBron, [Chris] Bosh and D-Wade and then you look at Chalmers, you’re like, ‘OK, this is maybe where their weakness is at.’”
James and Wade love to rip Chalmers -- in fact, it’s a regular occurrence -- but that’s where the privilege usually stops. Felton's comments have added extra spice to this final regular-season matchup between the two rivals, at least from the Heat’s point of view.
“We didn’t start it,” Chalmers told the Palm Beach Post when asked about Felton’s comments on Sunday. “But we’re gonna finish it.”
There are reasons the Knicks, who are in a battle for the East’s No. 2 seed with the Pacers, have some belief in themselves against the Heat. Much of it involves their 3-point shooting ability, which has been their best weapon against Miami this season.
In the Knicks’ two wins, both by 20 points, they made a combined 37 3-pointers and shot 46 percent from behind the arc. In the loss last month, the Knicks shot 8-of-29 on 3s. The Heat’s defense, which was marginal the first three months of the season, has improved significantly and has cut down on that 3-point weak spot.
Still, the Knicks remain confident. The addition of Martin has added toughness and scoring to a front line that is without Amar'e Stoudemire and Rasheed Wallace. The Knicks are also undefeated since moving Pablo Prigioni into the starting lineup alongside Felton in the backcourt as the ball movement and strong outside shooting have returned.
Said Knicks coach Mike Woodson about the Heat on Tuesday: "I didn't think they'd ever lose, maybe until they played us."
The Heat’s pressure defense can often be beaten by ball movement to set up 3-pointers, a shot the Heat are willing to give up if you can execute three or four quick passes without them stealing the ball first. The Knicks, largely because they play three point guards, including Jason Kidd, commit the fewest turnovers in the league and have the ability to limit one of the Heat’s tactical advantages.
Those facts, those wins months ago and their own winning streak have the Knicks, as Felton said, loving their chances. But the Heat aren't concerned.
“There’s always going to be that 48 minutes,” Shane Battier said on Sunday. “Statements that are made about us are not going to offend us.”