By John Carroll | Scouts Inc.
Sunday’s game between the Miami Heat and New York Knicks could be a preview of a playoff series in two weeks. The Heat are currently in second place in the Eastern Conference with a 41-17 record and the Knicks are tied for seventh place at 31-28. The Knicks have won nine straight at home and are 13-4 under Mike Woodson. They are just 3.5 games behind the Atlantic Division-leading Boston Celtics with seven games left. They are also three games behind the sixth-place Orlando Magic, who may struggle down the stretch without the injured Dwight Howard.
The Heat are virtually locked into the second position in the Eastern Conference. They are 3.5 games behind the Chicago Bulls with only eight games left in the season. They have had a strong season, but there are still large questions looming regarding their championship capabilities. Their defense is struggling, and they have not been able to close out games versus the top teams. They have recently lost to the Bulls, split with the Thunder and lost twice to the Boston Celtics. The Heat are 6-6 over the past 12 games and have less than two weeks to get back on track if they are to have any chance of winning an NBA championship.
Key injuries: For the Knicks, Iman Shumpert rolled his ankle on Friday night and will be a game-time decision. Amare Stoudemire is still out with a back injury. For the Miami Heat, Dwyane Wade, Mike Miller and Ronny Turiaf sat out Friday’s game. Wade and Miller have ankle issues while Turiaf is suffering from a hamstring pull.
Key Decision: Woodson
The Knicks' brass must make a key decision at the end of this season regarding Woodson. No matter what happens the rest of the season, there is evidence that he has had a very dramatic effect on this team in just a short time. Woodson has helped re-energize this franchise, has kept it focused on the defensive end and has guided them into seventh place in the Eastern Conference.
The Knicks have played 17 games under Woodson. In those 17 games, they have held opponents to just 88.8 points per game, on .415 field goal defense and .284 3-point field goal defense. Those are outstanding numbers; over the course of the entire season, those numbers would currently have the Knicks tied for second in points allowed and in first place in both field goal and 3-point field goal percentage defense.
By just looking at the defensive statistics, one could make a strong argument that Woodson should be retained. He has done marvelous things with this team without any personnel changes. He is working with the same group of players that Mike D’Antoni did, but getting far more out of them defensively. If he had a full training camp and an entire season of work with this team, the results could be even better.
Key Stat: Turnovers
The Knicks are currently ranked 29th in the NBA in turnovers per game at 16.3. Although the Knicks have improved drastically in several defensive categories, one area they have not made significant strides in is their turnover rate. The problem for New York is when facing the Heat, it is facing a team that leads the league in converting turnovers into points. If the Knicks do not take care of the ball versus the Miami defense on Sunday, they will pay. Miami forces 17.0 turnovers per game, ranking it third in the NBA. When the Heat turn a team over, LeBron James and Wade make opponents pay with their freaky ability to finish in transition. The Knicks must get good perimeter play from their high-turnover guys especially, Shumpert and Baron Davis.
Key Play: Miami defense
If the Heat want to win an NBA championship this season, they must get back to playing high-level defense. This has been their calling card for the past two seasons and they have recently gotten away from it as the season has approached its conclusion. Whether it is fatigue or boredom, it is a bad trend and they must fix the problem immediately.
The Heat are allowing their opponents 94.6 points per game in the last 12 games. That mark, over the course of the entire season, would currently rank them 12th in the league. This is a spike from their overall season average of 93.5, which ranks them sixth in the NBA.
In addition, the Heat have allowed opponents to shoot .467 from the field and .403 from the 3-point line during those 12 games. The field goal percentage numbers should be alarming to Erik Spoelstra and his team, because over the course of the season, those numbers would rank 27th in the league in field goal percentage defense and dead last in 3-point field goal percentage. The Heat have eight games remaining, including today's game with the Knicks. They desperately need to get back to playing the type of defense they played last season and earlier during this campaign. If they don't they will have a tough time getting to the NBA Finals.
Key Deficiency: Finishing games
We are almost one year removed from the beginning of the Heat’s first playoff run with LeBron, Wade and Bosh. It ended with a crash and burn against the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks. During that run, there were numerous questions for the Heat regarding their ability to close out games.
A year later and the Heat appear to have the same questions. Who is their closer? Is it LeBron? Is it Wade? Is it a combination? Or do they take turns?
The problem the Heat face is LeBron’s uncanny ability to score and dominate a game for approximately 40 minutes, and his inability to score and take over a game in the final six to eight minutes. He goes from being a go-to player to a setup guy.
An example of this came in Wednesday’s game versus Chicago, when James scored 26 points in the first 40 minutes and only four points over the final 13 minutes of regulation and overtime. LeBron scored on an old-fashioned three-point play at the 7:31 mark of the fourth quarter for his 26th point. From that point on, in the last 7 1/2 minutes of the fourth quarter and the five minutes of overtime, he finished 1-for-5 from the field and 1-for-2 from the line.
This type of offensive malaise has happened far too many times for it to be a coincidence. LeBron got a free pass in the playoffs a year ago, adjusting to a new team, new roles, etc. He must close games for the Heat in this year's playoffs if Miami hopes to reach the Finals again.