|LeBron scores 17 points in the fourth to show the Knicks what they missed out on in 2010. (US Presswire)|
NEW YORK -- LeBron James has had some of his best games in this building, the Garden, and now he was having one of his worst. Errant passes, no communication, shots not going down in the place that he's made his own personal playground -- both before and since he turned down the Knicks and left Cleveland for Miami.
When he was still a Cav, James joined Michael Jordan as the only visiting players with multiple 50-point games in the present version of Madison Square Garden, and in those pre-2010 days, he heard chants of "MVP!" while terrorizing the Knicks. In Game 3 of the Heat's first-round series against New York, fans called him what the New York Daily News called Amar'e Stoudemire the other day, minus the "g" and the "l."
What LeBron and the Heat really were, however, through three quarters Thursday night, was beatable on the road. Again. Miami finished the regular season 2-9 on the road against playoff teams, and their Achilles' heel was barking again -- the way LeBron was barking at Mario Chalmers for not cutting to the corner to stop his second-quarter pass from going out of bounds.
No sooner had James turned his second consecutive turnover -- he had eight in the game -- into a three-point play by stealing Tyson Chandler's outlet pass and converting at the basket, James picked up his fourth foul with 7:23 left in the quarter. To the bench he went for the rest of the third, possibly to contemplate how to salvage what would've been another galling road no-show for the Heat.
"I was able to come in and make plays and help our team win," James said.
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From one of his worst performances at the Garden to one of his best fourth-quarter playoff performances, James obliterated the Knicks down the stretch with a career-playoff-tying 17 fourth-quarter points in an 87-70 victory that gave Miami a 3-0 lead in the series. He lanced the Knicks' balloon with much of the same ruthlessness with which he'd traveled to Westchester County nearly two years ago and announced in his ill-fated telethon that he was taking his talents to South Beach.
The contrast between what James had chosen and what he'd eschewed that fateful day was never more apparent than in Game 3. The environment, unlike anything else for a big game in the sport, lived up to its reputation -- much better than the hokey-pokey hucksterism at James' party playpen on Biscayne Boulevard in Miami. But this season will end for the Knicks in a way that each of their last three playoff appearances have ended -- with a sweep. The Knicks, whose reputation for being good at basketball far exceeds their actual accomplishments, now own the longest playoff losing streak in NBA history at 13 games.
The fact that it's taken 11 years, since April 29, 2001, to register this accomplishment, frankly is sad.
It all could've changed in ways that would've shifted the landscape of the NBA back in July 2010, when James received the Knicks' contingent at the IMG building in downtown Cleveland and ultimately said thanks, but no thanks, to New York. It would've been a show to rival all Broadway shows had James and Wade come to the Knicks and formed a runaway freight train of open-floor dominance under Mike D'Antoni. That, anyway, was the plan. What James and Wade have gotten so far in Miami is kid-glove treatment, failure in the Finals, and epic championship expectations that might just be fulfilled this time around.
What have the Knicks gotten? Well, the Knicks got Stoudemire, who helped restore credibility to the franchise and then applied a fresh coat of disgrace by missing its most important game in more than a decade. While the Knicks were failing to surpass the 70-point plateau for the second time in three games, Stoudemire could only sit on the bench in a suit, his left arm in a sling, and perform stretching exercises on his surgically repaired hand after having smashed it into a glass-and-metal fire extinguisher box following the Heat's Game 2 victory in Miami.
Then, the Knicks got Carmelo Anthony. And once Kobe Bryant retires, this is the same Carmelo Anthony who will duel Kevin Durant for the rest of the decade to be recognized as the game's most lethal and dominant scorer. He's also the same Carmelo Anthony who, in the aforementioned most important game for the Knicks in more than a decade, managed only 22 points on 7-for-23 shooting -- the same Carmelo Anthony who is 22 for 64 (.344) in the series.
"Their defensive scheme is to stop me," Anthony said, leaving out the part about how, when he's all there is to stop, it's quite a bit easier.
D'Antoni, the coach who'd been brought to New York to lure LeBron and Wade, is long gone -- having been unable to get Anthony to embrace his offensive system and unwilling to scrap it and adopt Anthony's system. What the latter has gotten interim coach Mike Woodson is the same result every other Knicks coach since 2001 has achieved -- zero playoff wins.
"Even when he passes the ball, we have to get other guys comfortable to shoot the ball," said Woodson, who on the postgame quote sheets distributed to the media is identified as the "interim head coach" -- which amounts to stating the obvious, that this won't be his problem too much longer.
The Heat's problem, beating playoff teams on the road, is solved for the time being. Both of their road wins since Valentine's Day against entrants in this year's playoff field have come in New York, against the Knicks. And it wasn't going to happen Thursday night unless James, once revered and flirted with here, came off the bench at the start of the fourth quarter and did something about it.
James had said no to New York in July 2010, and he said it again Thursday night -- said it so loud that his voice was hoarse in the postgame news conference, barely audible. The superstar who couldn't shoot or pass straight for the first three quarters, scored the first eight points of the fourth -- and there were nine more to come, another dose of heartache for the Knicks. J.R. Smith's sensational dunk at the 9:27 mark was New York's only field goal until Anthony finally broke through with a 20-foot jumper with 6:59 left.
The Heat, defending with ferocity, clamped down on Anthony and the Knicks -- who missed their next six shots to go with a turnover and a shot-clock violation -- and suddenly a seven-point lead had grown to 15, 80-65. The explosive offense that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra keeps talking about was 8 for 33 (.242) with 11 turnovers in the second half.
There were 32 points for James in the end, a startling reminder of his greatness after such a mortal start to the evening. But he wouldn't remember any of the baskets, any of the eight turnovers or five fouls or five assists. He wouldn't even remember, when looking back some day on his first playoff game at the Garden, that teammate Chris Bosh had flown to Miami to meet his newborn son and returned barely a half-hour before tipoff with little or no sleep.
What James would remember, he said, was simply this: "That we won."
And while James' legacy as a winner has hardly been sealed in the overall scheme of things, it's pretty clear who came out on top in this little corner of his basketball world.
The Knicks lost. And LeBron won.