Are Heat vulnerable to struggling Knicks?

LeBron James will be donning a mask Thursday but likely hopes Melo doesn't get this close. Zuma Press/Icon SMI

MIAMI -- LeBron James cares deeply about long-time friend Carmelo Anthony, but the Miami Heat star couldn’t care less about the New York Knicks’ current struggles.

That makes for an intriguing juxtaposition as James and the surging Heat prepare for Thursday’s visit from Anthony and the slumping Knicks. Based on some of its tendencies this season against teams with losing records, Miami should be on guard against a major letdown, with nine of its 14 losses coming against teams with sub-.500 records.

Despite the Knicks stumbling into town with one of the worst records in the weaker Eastern Conference, they technically fit the description of a team that might catch a sluggish Heat team clearly off its game.

But considering their history together, James insists the Knicks hardly qualify as such an opponent.

“With the talent they have, you can be like, ‘Why?’” James said of New York, which drags a 21-36 record and a multitude of problems into AmericanAirlines Arena. “When you look at their record ... I know they’ve been struggling. But I know their record won’t [reflect] the team we’ll play [Thursday night].”

It’s safe to suggest the Knicks, losers of nine of their last 11 games, are a mess right now.

Their point guard, Raymond Felton, was arrested this week on felony weapons charges but is expected to be in the lineup against the Heat. One of their shooting guards, J.R. Smith, is making a case for being the biggest knucklehead in the league with his array of immature antics on the court.

Anthony, their franchise forward, is reportedly looking forward to exploring his options in free agency. One big man, Amar’e Stoudemire, has gradually deteriorated since signing that $100 million contract in the summer of 2010. And another post presence, Tyson Chandler, has struggled to play with the championship impact he brought from the Dallas Mavericks three years ago.

Other than that, New York appears just fine.

And that’s exactly what makes the team a potentially dangerous opponent for the Heat, who have won five in a row and nine of their last 10 as they look to wrap up their best month of the season. Miami will be sorting through some of its own issues Thursday, with James expected to return to action a week after breaking his nose in a Feb. 20 victory against Oklahoma City.

After sitting out Sunday’s game against Chicago, James practiced for the first time with a protective mask Wednesday and said he hopes to work through the discomfort over the course of the game. Beyond that, the Heat were focused on avoiding a potential letdown against the Knicks.

Despite the recent turmoil, New York has split the first two meetings of the season with Miami. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra made sure Wednesday to point out his team’s 102-92 loss on Jan. 9 at Madison Square Garden, which started Miami on a season-worst, three-game losing streak.

The Heat then avenged that setback three weeks later with a 106-91 victory in New York.

“We’re more concerned with how we’re playing [and] we don’t want to take a step back,” Spoelstra said after Wednesday’s practice. “We don’t care who they’re bringing, who they’re playing. They’ve already beaten us, so we know what they’re capable of. They’ve shown they can play well enough to beat us.”

There have also been numerous occasions when the Heat have shown they can play poorly enough to essentially beat themselves when facing some of the league’s worst teams. Miami’s lone blemish on the record this month came in a Feb. 8 loss to the Jazz, which was the only opponent on a six-game trip that had a losing record. The Heat went 5-1 on the trek after picking up wins against playoff contenders in the Clippers, Suns, Warriors, Mavericks and Thunder.

Heat guard Dwyane Wade tried to rationalize his team’s habit of playing to the level of the competition.

“You want to be able to beat the good teams; you don’t want to lose to the teams that are not as well,” Wade said. “Then, we’d be 82-0. So, you’ve got to lose to somebody. You understand in this league that as much as you want to, you can’t play your A-game [for] 82 games. So you have some of those moments when it’s hard to gather that same energy and focus that you do against OKC, the Clippers and San Antonio. It’s just a part of it. It happens to every team. We’re no different.”

But for the Heat, games against the Knicks are different because records matter little in a rivalry that intensified in the mid-1990s after Pat Riley abruptly left New York to run Miami’s franchise. Now, the Knicks come to Miami looking for a bit of a diversion from some of their problems on and off the court.

Heat center Chris Bosh said he’s expecting to face a desperate team that may be down but certainly not out of opportunities to finish strong this season. The Knicks have 25 games remaining and are only five games out of the eighth playoff spot in the forgiving East, where 10 of the 15 teams have losing records.

“They’re a team that won 50-something games just last year and still have one of the best players in the league,” Bosh said of Anthony, the NBA’s second-leading scorer. “You can’t take success for granted in this league, because one day you’ll be up and the next day you’ll be down. It gets tough sometimes, and they’re just getting the tough end of the stick.”

James has little sympathy for the Knicks, but said it’s tough to see Anthony go through so much difficulty in New York. The two have been friends since they were high school phenoms on the national prep circuit and were two of the top three picks in the 2003 NBA draft.

Personally, James wants to see Anthony get his team back on track while there’s still time left.

As long as it doesn’t come at the Heat’s expense.

“I don’t worry about their franchise; I worry about Carmelo Anthony,” James said. “I always want him to succeed. Obviously, he’s been playing great basketball. But I definitely don’t like to see anyone lose the way they’ve been losing.”