NEW YORK — Carmelo Anthony, for a split second, looked at me incredulously and then gave one of his customary smirks as he stood in his locker.
“We’re not thinking about the Heat right now,” Anthony said. “After we come back from Washington, maybe Saturday in practice you can ask me something about the Heat.”
Per Anthony, the Knicks are focused on tonight’s matchup against the Washington Wizards and are looking to avenge the loss they sustained at the hands of John Wall and Co. back on Feb. 6.
But with all due respect, the Wizards aren’t the defending Eastern Conference champions and the Knicks won’t have to go through them to advance to the NBA Finals.
That team would be the Heat, and since ‘Melo says I have to wait until Saturday to ask him about the matchup, I’ll ask you: Are the New York Knicks fooling themselves by thinking they can beat LeBron James in a seven-game playoff series?
From where I sit, the answer is yes.
And on Sunday, we’ll get a preview of what Team ‘Melo will face — and the Heat, as March begins, are not the same team the Knicks destroyed twice when this season was in its infancy.
Since the last time these two teams played on Dec. 6, they have each become so different that the Knicks Melo-less 20 point thumping of the the LeBron’s team might as well have been last season. The victory was the fifth in a row for the Knicks and made the team 14-4. They would split the next two and finish the first 20 games of the season with a 15-5 record and a .750 win percentage.
The Knicks recipe for success was tight perimeter defense, ball movement, floor spacing and accurate 3-point shooting. Jason Kidd, Ronnie Brewer and Rasheed Wallace each made major contributions. Jason Kidd made 32 of his 64 3-point attempts and Brewer, though he began to regress, was still an effective outside shooter.
Through the first 10 games of the season, Brewer shocked everyone with his 3-point proficiency, converting 11 of the 25 3-pointers he took. That is 44 percent. After the next 10 games, Brewer was still making 37 percent of his 3-point shots.
Wallace hasn’t played a game since Dec. 13 and is done for the season. When he was on the floor, he as an effective post defender and a solid rebounder. Though his athleticism has waned over the years, Wallace still had his timing, he still had his leadership qualities and he still made opposing defenses respect him behind the 3-point line. Playing mostly as a center, he helped the Knicks floor spacing tremendously, keeping the paint open and helping some of his teammates—Brewer, Kidd and even Steve Novak—get open corner pocket 3-point looks.
Today, Kidd has become woefully ineffective, Brewer has been traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder for a second-round pick and Wallace’s fractured fifth metatarsal likely signals the end of his career.
As great as Anthony and J.R. Smith have been this season, the mostly unheralded contributions from Kidd, Brewer and Wallace is what made the Knicks one of the league’s best teams — once upon a time.
Between Dec. 13—the last time Wallace played—and today, the Knicks lost Raymond Felton for four weeks, and reinserted both Amar’e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert into the lineup. Stoudemire, as great as he has been offensively, can’t make up for the lost defensive proficiency of Wallace. And Shumpert, as adept as he is defensively, has not provided the Knicks with the proficient 3-point shooting that they were getting from either Kidd or Brewer at the wing positions.
That the Knicks have become a .500 team shouldn’t amount to much of a surprise since three of their key rotation players stopped producing, for various reasons.
The question that should be asked now of these Knicks is whether they are closer to being the team that began the season 18-6 or if they are now the team they have been since: a 16-14 club that no longer makes 3-pointers at will and one that has somewhat inconsistent on the defensive end.