|Lost in all the coexisting talk is Chris Bosh, who continues to sacrifice his offense in Miami. (US Presswire)|
NEW YORK -- The way things have been going for the Heat on the road against good teams, it was no wonder their matinee on Seventh Avenue started out with a wrong turn into the wrong dressing room.
In the "transformed" version of Madison Square Garden, where a renovation costing more than two New Orleans Hornets franchises is under way, getting around in the bowels of the building is confusing, to say the least. So when the Heat showed up a little after 11 a.m. Sunday, nobody told them where they were supposed to go. They strolled through a doorway and into the visiting hockey locker room, which is a lot more spacious than the one intended for them.
It was their first, but hardly their last good decision of the day.
A short time later, the Heat actually decided to beat a good team on the road. They decided to play to their "identity," as coach Erik Spoelstra said before the game. Although to be honest, watching them for long stretches against the Knicks -- a possible first-round playoff opponent -- it was downright difficult to remember what that identity is.
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In the end, they got a couple of timely baskets from LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, watched the Knicks miss one isolation jump shot after another and pulled away for a 93-85 victory -- only their second on the road against a team currently in the playoff field since Valentine's Day.
"It came at a good time for us," Wade said in the spacious corner of the hockey dressing room.
The reality, of course, is that nothing will come at a good time for the Heat until the playoffs begin in a couple of weeks. But in a strange way, a team that went to the Finals last season sort of needed this one. The list of playoff teams they've lost to on the road -- Lakers, Magic, Bulls (twice), Celtics -- had been growing so long it needed its own seat on the team charter.
"It was great to come out on the road and have a game that felt like this," Spoelstra said afterward, "where there's a healthy concern -- not a panic, but a healthy concern -- about how you're playing and owning up to it."
So after winning at Indiana on Feb. 14, the Heat are now 2-8 in their last 10 games against playoff teams away from American Airlines Arena. And they did it against a Knicks team that has ridden Carmelo Anthony and a new offense -- which, if you're not familiar with it, is called Carmelo Anthony -- to nine consecutive home victories.
"It was a step forward, and we can't make it more than that," Spoelstra said. "All it was was one step for us in our collective mental toughness."
The Knicks, for their part, made the Heat uncomfortable about the prospect of a potential first-round playoff matchup. With 42 points coming from his full arsenal of talents -- pull-up jumpers, step-back jumpers, drives to the rim, free throws (12 of them in 15 attempts), even a hook shot -- Anthony had his way until going cold in the final minutes. Iman Shumpert, the rookie emerging as a disruptive on-ball defender, picked Wade's pocket at a couple of important junctures in the game. In the end, maybe the best thing the Heat did Sunday was move the Knicks out of the seventh playoff spot in the hopes that they stay there. The theory being, if the Knicks -- with an interim coach and a one-man offense -- make it this hard in April, what could they do with Amar'e Stoudemire in May?
"The playoffs is a different season," Wade said.
"We'll worry about the playoffs when we get there," he said.
There's plenty to worry about between now and then, for both of these teams. The Heat, because of who they are and the target they adorned themselves with when James and Chris Bosh joined Wade two summers ago, have more problems than a 42-17 team should. They started the game with no true center (Ronny Turiaf, shocking as it may sound, was hurt) and are still in the infant stages of utilizing a lineup that features no true point guard for long stretches. Despite their record and talent, Miami just doesn't carry itself like a team with any confidence -- which happens when your two best players, two of the most unguardable open-court players in the league, do little else besides launch low-percentage jump shots.
The Knicks? There's no telling. This was the third time the Heat have faced them this season, and it was quite literally the third entirely different Knicks team they've faced. The last time the old '90s rivalry was resurrected, it turned out that New York was in the dying breaths of Linsanity. The Knicks got clobbered 102-88 in Miami on Feb. 23 and won only a single time in the next seven games before coach Mike D'Antoni resigned because he couldn't get through to Anthony.
"Every time we've played them," Spoelstra said, "we've had to have a new game plan."
And if the Heat see the Knicks in the first round, he'll need yet another one. Stoudemire, recovering from a herniated disk in his back, could be back by then. Jeremy Lin, presumably, will not. And all of that will leave the Knicks back in the same place they were in when D'Antoni left: trying to score, defend and win with both Anthony and Stoudemire on the floor together. D'Antoni, the NBA's best offensive coach, decided he'd rather forego six weeks of salary than continue trying.
"It's kind of tough as far as finding a rhythm," said Wade, who has spent nearly two full seasons plus a long playoff run trying to coexist with James. "Especially if you come from a place where you're used to getting so many touches. You can go six or seven minutes without touching the ball and you can get out of rhythm."
For now, the Knicks are a happy-go-lucky bunch -- "No reason to hang our heads," Anthony said -- as they ride one of basketball's most lethal scorers into a first-round showdown with the Heat or Bulls. As to which one would be a more favorable matchup, the Knicks would do well to focus instead on themselves.
Before Anthony was traded to the Knicks last season, I had a conversation with him in which I asked if he'd considered what it would be like to be the star who embraced New York after his friends LeBron and Wade had decided they wanted no part of it as free agents. Anthony, a player with superstar talent forever searching for a superstar profile, seemingly would have it all there on a platter for him: not only the adulation of New York, but also the contrast with his peers who'd told the Knicks, "Thanks, but no thanks."
"I have thought about that," Anthony told me back then.
It was all on display Sunday, with the Garden crowd booing LeBron every time he touched the ball and Anthony outplaying both of Miami's superstars for three-plus quarters -- soaking in the roars from the crowd with his own little virtuoso performance. The funny thing now is that, for the Knicks to have a chance against the Heat or Bulls, it can't be simply Anthony alone. He'll have to figure out with Stoudemire what LeBron and Wade are still trying to figure out: how to coexist.
"It's been a roller-coaster season for us," Anthony said. "Injuries, guys coming and going, coaching changes. But that's neither here or there."
Not now, no. Not yet. But as the Heat and their co-superstars can attest, it takes more than a one-man show.