It's now officially hunting season in South Florida.
At least according to Amare Stoudemire's calendar. It was five months ago inside a festive New York locker room after a preseason game when Stoudemire jokingly declared during a candid conversation with a teammate that the Knicks would eventually go big-game hunting in Miami.
"You know what we're going to hunt down there, right?" Stoudemire reportedly told rookie Josh Harrellson, an avid outdoorsman. "We're going to hunt LeBron and D-Wade."
The Heat certainly won't be hiding in any forestry when the teams meet for Game 1 of their best-of-seven series at AmericanAirlines Arena in Saturday afternoon's prime national television slot at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC. When reminded of his comments back in December on Friday, Stoudemire said they were intended to be part of a private conversation that were overheard and made it into print.
But Stoudemire didn't back away from two stances: The Knicks have targeted the Heat as the team to beat in the East and believe their star power and talent rivals Miami's nucleus of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
"Miami is a phenomenal team. They will be ready to go, and we are as well," Stoudemire said Friday after the Knicks' practice in Miami. "In order to get to the Finals, we have to go through Miami. They are the defending Eastern Conference champions. It's very, very evened out. Dwyane, LeBron and Chris are three phenomenal players. But we have three players here that can match their skill set here as well. And also, our second unit is phenomenal. We have a great second unit. So it's pretty evenly matched, man."
The Heat swept the three-game regular season series with the Knicks, including a 93-85 victory in New York on April 15 that also happened to be the last time James, Wade and Bosh were on the court together. Since then, a combination of injuries and scheduled nights off for rest have kept the Heat's Big Three from maintaining much rhythm together.
The Heat have been trying to work through the rust and re-establish chemistry during full-fledged practices that have been disguised as shootarounds before recent games.
Miami's players and coaches downplayed any notion that a combination of rest and recovery from nagging injuries the past two weeks might significantly affect their rhythm heading into the series against the Knicks, especially early.
"I'm not worried about the continuity at all," said Wade, who has missed five of the past seven games with knee and finger injuries since that April 15 win in New York. "It's just guys getting back into a rhythm and flow. Throughout a playoff series, throughout the whole playoff run, you're going to have ups and downs. You're going to have different adjustments you have to make. We'll deal with whatever comes our way. We have enough talent."
With just a 48-hour turnaround between the final game of the regular season and the opening game of the playoffs, the issue become whether or not the Heat will have enough time to deal with some of those adjustments. Wade said the dislocated left index finger that has kept him out recently has recovered at a faster pace than even he anticipated.
But the Heat remained legitimately concerned about the health and conditioning of Bosh, who missed the final six games of the regular season with a strained hamstring and other undisclosed fatigue issues with his legs. Bosh said Friday he expects to play in Game 1, but that it might take him "two or three games" before his legs in top condition.
"There is a period where I have to get those legs back -- it's not just going to happen," Bosh said. "I have to be realistic about that. But once I get back into prime shape, which I was, I will be able to compete at a very high level."
Bosh said that level needs to be on par with the way he played in Miami's previous meeting against the Knicks, when he had 16 points and 14 rebounds. He followed that up two nights later with 22 points and 15 rebounds in his next game against the New Jersey Nets in what was his best performance of the season in consecutive games.
The Heat haven't since seen Bosh on the court in game action, but he hopes to play from that same blueprint.
"It's not even from an offensive standpoint, because that's going to take care of itself," Bosh said. "It's about rebounding. That's my area I'm concentrating on. That's all I'm worried about in these playoffs. I know if I'm rebounding, I'm being aggressive. And if I'm being aggressive, everything else is falling into place and I'm being the necessary big man I need to be for this team to win. Take care of one thing and that'll take care of the rest."
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was reluctant to offer much Friday in terms of a health update on his top players. At one point, he told reporters that many of Miami's primary rotation players were considered "day to day" and would be evaluated again Saturday before he knew who would play.
"Considering all the different factors, we feel very fortunate in terms of our health right now," Spoelstra said. "We're probably as healthy, arguably, as anybody else can be after this type of 66-game season. I don't think anyone is feeling 100 percent."
That was also the case for the Knicks, who were without center and defensive player of the year candidate Tyson Chandler for practice because of flu-like symptoms. Chandler is expected to play on Saturday. For the Heat, there is far more comfort than concern despite some of the recent obstacles on the court entering the postseason.
"We're a confident bunch," James said of regaining their chemistry early in the series. "[If] we play on top of our game, we give ourselves a chance to win against anybody. I don't think it's much of a concern. We understand what needs to be done on a basketball court. We have that comfort level."
The Heat are even comfortable being targets -- a distinction they've grown accustomed to over the past two seasons since James and Bosh joined Wade in South Florida.
Just in time for hunting season.
After initially hearing of Stoudemire's comments, Wade responded on Twitter back in December: "I got those hunting tips for you. Hit me on my cell."
Wade would later reveal that Stoudemire never bothered to call during the season. On Friday, Wade said it was good for the Heat to open the playoffs by facing a team that would require Miami to play at its best to win the series. He also had a little more fun with those "hunting" comments.
"Yeah, we've played the whole season trying to make sure we played each other in the playoffs," Wade said. "That's how we've played the season. That's all the fun in the game. Obviously, those guys aren't going to run away from an opponent. And we're not, either. So let the games begin."