By John Carroll
The Miami Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals last season. This weekend, they will begin their quest to win an NBA championship by defeating the New York Knicks in the first round of the 2012 playoffs.
The Heat have all the ingredients needed to win a championship. They have two of the top-five players in the NBA in LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. James fills a stat sheet every night for the Heat with points, rebounds and assists. He has developed a post game which, with his ability to get to the free throw line, should help him in end-game situations. Wade is an explosive scorer and has the confidence to close out games for the Heat. Chris Bosh is the best third option of any team in the NBA and has shown that he is not afraid to take and make a big shot. The Heat have improved their bench this season with the addition of Shane Battier and Norris Cole and the return of Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller after battling injuries last season.
The Heat are one of the better defensive teams in the NBA, ranking in the top five in points allowed and field goal percentage defense. But what really separates them from the rest of the Eastern Conference and makes them so dangerous is their offensive capabilities. They not only have two All-Star players that combine to average almost 50 points per game, but they are one of the most effective and efficient offensive teams in the league. The Heat rank third in the NBA in field goal percentage at 47.1. Having two players who can get their own shot at any time effectively and efficiently is a major weapon at playoff time. It especially helps in the fourth quarter when it becomes so difficult to score.
The Knicks have experienced two different seasons in this compressed 66-game schedule. They have experienced the Mike D’Antoni tenure, which had them at 18-24, and now the Mike Woodson era, which has them at 18-6 since he took over the team back in mid-March. The Knicks have dealt with injuries to Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Jeremy Lin. And they have played almost the entire season without a point guard. Yet they find themselves in the playoffs with the seventh seed and have a superstar who could carry them to an upset in the first round.
Woodson inherited a fractured team but has brought a straight talk approach to the Knicks and an unwavering demand for defense. He has tweaked D’Antoni’s offense and asked his two superstars, Anthony and Stoudemire, to play both ends of the floor. The Knicks are playing a much more careful, slower pace with more half-court sets. They have lowered their turnovers and become a dangerous team as the playoffs approach. Their challenge throughout this series is to be efficient offensively. They cannot lock into a one-on-one isolation battle versus one of the top defensive teams in the NBA and expect to win. If Carmelo is not in a zone offensively, they will need to find other options that can generate quality looks and points. If they can do this, they will give the Heat problems. If they are relegated to Anthony coming down and going one-on-one time and time again, they will get beaten soundly in this series.
Miami Heat Offense
• The Heat have one of the most dynamic trios of scorers in the NBA in James, Wade and Bosh. They combine to score 67.2 points per game and take 63.3 percent of the field goal attempts for the Heat.
• The Heat are sixth in the NBA in points per game with 98.9 per game. This is down slightly from the 100.2 points per game they scored last season.
• With two of the best scorers in the NBA the Heat can get a quality shot at any point offensively. This is one of the major reasons the Heat are third in the NBA in field goal percentage at 47.1 percent. That is an incredibly high percentage for a team that does not have a true low post forward or center.
• The Heat get to the foul line which is a tremendous advantage in the playoffs due to how difficult it is to score in the half court. They attempt 24.2 free throws per game and James, Wade and Bosh combine to attempt 19.1 per game themselves.
• Earlier in the year the Heat were one of the top fast-breaking teams in the league, but they have dropped a bit as the season has gone on. They currently average 13.8 fast-break points per game. The Heat led the league in points off turnovers.
• The Heat get the ball into the teeth of the defense, scoring 47.1 paint points per game which ranks sixth in the NBA.
• The Heat struggled closing out games against Dallas in the NBA Finals last season. This is a critical area for them to solve offensively in this year's playoffs. Wade must demonstrate that he can be the closer for the Heat in the fourth quarters of playoff games and James must take a step back and allow him to have the ball in his hands.
• The Heat are an unusual offensive team in that they do not play with a traditional point guard. James will facilitate the offense much of the time and Wade will also. The Heat stay away from pick-and-rolls with these two players because it allows opponents to double them with no regard for the man setting the pick.
• The Heat do not run many set plays for Bosh. They occasionally throw the ball inside to him but he gets most of his shots on pick-and-pops with Mario Chalmers late in the clock or by getting open shot opportunities because of the attention paid to James and Wade.
New York Knicks Offense
• Anthony has been great offensively for the Knicks in the latter stages of the season. He has averaged 30 points in the last 10 games. He has blossomed into the star that the Knicks thought they were getting when they traded the core of their team a year and a half ago.
• The Knicks are ranked 29th in the NBA in turnovers per game at 16.2 per game. This is a major problem for them offensively due to Miami being a high steals team and the No. 1 team in the NBA in points off turnovers. The Knicks must take care of the ball in this series or the Heat will make them pay dearly.
• One of the Knicks' problems offensively is their 3-point shooting. They have the leading 3-point shooter in the NBA in Steve Novak (46.8 percent) but they only shoot 33.5 percent from the 3-point line as a team, ranking them 21st in the NBA. They take too many 3-point shots (23.3 per game) for a team that is ranked that low in 3-point shooting.
• Under D’Antoni, the Knicks averaged 16.1 isolation plays per game and shot 35.0 percent in those plays. Under Woodson, the number has increased to 22.2 percent and the field goal percentage of those isolations has jumped up to 41.0 percent.
• The offensive rhythm between Anthony and Stoudemire is poor. Stoudemire is not 100 percent of the player he used to be and it is difficult for these two players to play together and be effective. Their skill sets interfere with the offensive flow of the Knicks. Both players are one-on-one players and the ball sticks when it gets in their hands. It allows the defense to lock in on that player without any movement of players or the ball. They will have limited success against Miami’s defense with this type of strategy. Miami will be locked in on Stoudemire and Anthony and not allow easy drives to the rim. Also Stoudemire does not provide the spacing for Anthony’s one-on-one offense. Woodson may continue to start Stoudemire but if he wants to win this series he must figure out how to play them separately without bruising Amare’s ego.
• The Knicks have spurtability. With Anthony, J.R. Smith, Novak and Stoudemire, they have players that can catch fire and put points on the board. They will need to score in the upper 90s and shoot a high percentage to stay with the high-octane offense of Miami.
Mario Chalmers: Chalmers has served as the de facto point guard on a team where James and Wade handle the ball a ton. Chalmers puts a lot of pressure on opponents when he is making shots. With all the attention on James and Wade he gets great looks. In wins this year, Chalmers is shooting 49.0 percent from the field, while in loses he is shooting only 37.0 percent. Chalmers will be called on to defend a number of high quality point guards in the playoffs; if he can’t handle them, the Heat will slide James over to take on the job. Overall, Chalmers had a solid year, averaging 9.8 points per game and 3.5 assists per game
Baron Davis: The Knicks have played without a point guard for large segments of the season. Due to an injury to starter Jeremy Lin, Davis now has the starting job. Davis should be OK defensively in this series with Chalmers, who is not an overly athletic point guard. Davis looks like he is starting to find his shooting touch. Over the last five games of the season, he averaged 25.0 minutes and scored 12.5 points on 52.6 percent from the field and 55.6 percent from the 3-point line.
Dwyane Wade: Wade had another stellar season for the Heat, averaging 22.1 points per game and 4.6 assists. Wade is a big-time scorer who is not afraid of taking or making big shots. He is at his best when he is attacking the rim in transition or in the half court. Wade gets to the free throw line 6.1 times per game. He has the ability to create a shot for himself at any time. His Achilles' heel is his perimeter shooting. He is shooting only 27.0 percent from the 3-point line, making a total of only 15 3-point shots this season. He has been banged up at various points this season, playing in only 49 of the Heat’s 66 games. Wade is a terrific defender and he and James give the Heat the best perimeter combination of defenders in the league.
Iman Shumpert: Shumpert was a tremendous pickup for the Knicks with the 17th selection in the 2011 draft. He is a lock-down defender who has the strength and quickness to stay in front of any guard in the NBA. His offensive game needs some refinement. He averages 9.5 points per game but it is his shot selection and turnovers that need to improve. Shumpert struggles to shoot consistently, shooting only 40.0 percent from the field and 30.0 percent from the 3-point line.
LeBron James: James has had another monster season. He led the Heat in four major categories: points, rebounds, assists and steals. He has put up MVP-like numbers, averaging 27.1 points and 6.2 assists per game. James has also had career-best numbers shooting the ball. He has shot 53.0 percent from the field and 36.0 percent from the 3-point line. LeBron has added a post-up game to his repertoire and he will utilize it against height and strength mismatches. A big key for the Heat is his ability to get to the free throw line (8.1 attempts per game). The big question for him in this series and throughout the playoffs will be whether he will be productive in the fourth quarters of games. Too many times he has been dominant in the first three quarters to come up empty in the final and most important 12 minutes.
Carmelo Anthony: Anthony has been terrific for the Knicks in the month of April. He has averaged 29.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and shot 49.5 percent from the field. He has had two 40-plus point performances -- one against the Bulls, the other against the Heat. Carmelo can carry the Knicks for long periods of time in this series with his shot-making skills. He is one of the best one-on-one players in the game, because he can create his own shot, get to the rim and take the contact and get fouled. He averages 6.7 free throw attempts per game. However the Knicks will need him to not only score but defend at a high level to compete with the Heat.
Chris Bosh: Bosh is playing extremely well for the Heat at just the right time. He has averaged 17.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per game in the last 10 Heat contests. Bosh will be challenged defensively in this series two ways: first by having to defend Amare Stoudemire and possibly Tyson Chandler at the center position. Bosh’s ability to step away from the basket will draw Stoudemire/Chandler away from the basket and open up driving lanes for James and Wade
Amare Stoudemire: Stoudemire is an explosive offensive player who has been hindered by nagging injuries. He does not have the same bounce and first-step quickness he once had. Stoudemire played in only 45 games for the Knicks this season. That being said, he did average 17.6 points and grab 8.0 rebounds when he was on the court. Stoudemire is an offensive talent but his skills do not mesh well with Anthony and Chandler. Woodson must find some way to create offensive opportunities for Stoudemire when he is on the court while opening up driving lanes for Anthony. Stoudemire and Chandler do not space the court well and opponents can sag and make Carmelo’s job much harder.
Joel Anthony: Anthony has started 51 games this year for the Heat but has been moved to the bench due to lack of production. He may be inserted back into the starting lineup for this series, but the Heat may go with some smaller lineups with LeBron at the 4 to matchup with Carmelo Anthony. Anthony is primarily a defender, rebounder and shot blocker for the Heat. Unfortunately he is a major liability offensively and that will cut into his minutes.
Tyson Chandler: Chandler is just what he was advertised as, a hard-working defender and rebounder who instantly improved the Knicks defense upon his arrival. Chandler communicates at a high level defensively and is a tremendous help defender. He gives great help on screens and picks-and-rolls while still being able to rotate back to his man afterwards. Chandler was almost a double-double points and rebounds guy this season for New York with 11.3 and 9.9 per game. Chandler is underappreciated offensively. He does a myriad of little things that help his team win. He sets excellent screens and rolls to the rim hard, he finishes at the basket with lob dunks or interior catches, and he attacks the offensive glass which creates extra possessions. This is extremely important in playoff games where it is so difficult to score. Chandler averaged 3.4 offensive rebounds per game this season for New York.
Norris Cole: Cole started the season as a solid role player off the bench backing up Chalmers. He is an excellent ball handler and scoring threat that pushes the ball in transition and can run pick-and-rolls. However, he has really struggled as the season has progressed, losing confidence and his scoring has dipped. Coles, who was scoring 8.2 points in January, has only averaged 5.2 points in the month of April.
Shane Battier: Battier has played only 23.1 minutes per game for the Heat but he has been a nice addition because of his veteran presence, toughness, defense and ability to space the court and shoot. Although Battier has provided tough defense this year for the Heat, his offensive numbers have dipped. He is averaging only 4.8 points down from his career 9.2 points per game. In addition, his shooting numbers have also dropped from 44.0 percent for his career to 39.0 percent this season.
Udonis Haslem: Haslem may be the most important bench player in this series for his ability to defend both Stoudemire and Anthony at various times in a game. He has averaged 24.9 minutes per game and the Heat will call on him to defend, rebound and knock down open shots. He is averaging 7.4 rebounds per game. If he can also take his defender away from the hoop and knock down the open jumper it will help the Heat offensively in multiple ways.
Mike Miller: Miller has never found a niche since joining the Heat, partially due to injuries. He averaged only 6.0 points this year compared to his career average of 12.9 points per game. Miller is primarily a catch-and-shoot player off spot-ups. He has the ability to make opponents pay for helping and doubling onto James and Wade. His 3-point shooting percentages are up this season to 45.2 percent after shooting only 36.0 percent last season.
Ronny Turiaf: The Heat picked up Turiaf on waivers in late March. He gives the Heat another big body who can rebound and provide defense. He plays with tremendous energy and is a low-maintenance player.
James Jones: Jones does one thing. He spaces the court and knocks down open shots. He shot 41.3 percent from the 3-point line this season.
New York Bench
J.R. Smith: Smith has been one of the best free-agent signings of the season. He has brought depth to a roster void of it. Smith’s minutes and points have increased during the month of April, where he is averaging 15.5 points per game while playing 32.9 minutes.
Smith can create his own shot and that will be extremely important for New York against Miami. He has shot the 3-point shot at a pretty good clip this season, 34.7 percent, but his shot selection is a major problem at times and it shows up in his overall field goal percentage of only 39.8 percent from the field.
Landry Fields: Fields does a little of everything. He is a very good defender and rebounding guard. He is explosive around the rim and can hit the open midrange shot. He is not overly talented but he is excellent moving without the ball and slashing to the rim, scoring on opportunistic plays. He averages 28.7 minutes per game, 8.8 points and 4.2 rebounds this season. Fields finds ways to score without set plays. He struggles from the 3-point line, shooting only 25.6 percent, and that hurts the Knicks the way they play offensively. He cannot space the court and provide an outside threat for Woodson when they run isolations for Carmelo.
Steve Novak: Novak has found a home with New York. He is the best perimeter stand-still shooter in the NBA and this has been perfect playing alongside Anthony and Stoudemire. Novak leads the NBA in 3-point shooting at 47.1 percent. He attempts 5.2 3-point shots and makes 2.5 per game.
Toney Douglas: Douglas is a talented, athletic player who has been demoted to the end of the bench for most of the season. He should be able to defend at a high level but his focus is not on defense. He has flashes of great play, having averaged 10.6 points per game last year, but his shot selection is not at a very high level, and therefore he is shooting only 32.4 percent from the field.
Jared Jeffries: Jeffries has been out recently with an injured knee. He is an important role player who makes quiet contributions for the Knicks. Jeffries is an excellent interior defender for Woodson’s club.
Jeremy Lin: Lin is not expected back for the Knicks until the second round, after having meniscus surgery several weeks ago. He brought a jolt of excitement to the Garden due to his passing and point guard skills and still leads the club in assists with 6.2 per game. His presence would give Woodson some more scoring options if he was available near the end of this playoff series.
Prediction: Heat in 6