This most star-studded of opening-round matchups is also the most difficult to project from results during the regular season. Over the course of 66 games, the New York Knicks have gone through at least six iterations: early disaster, Linsanity, awkward Lin-Anthony coexistence under D'Antoni, recovery under Woodson, surge without Lin and Stoudemire and finally reintegrating Stoudemire into the lineup. The three head-to-head meetings between the Knicks and the Miami Heat came during stages one, three and five, meaning none of them are really representative of what we can expect in this series.
New York isn't the only team in this series with multiple identities, however. The Miami Heat was a very different team before and after the All-Star break. Despite a late recovery, the Heat has outscored the average opponent by 3.2 points per game since March 1, adjusted for location and opposition. That's ninth in the league. The Knicks have excelled during that span, posting a +6.1 schedule-adjusted differential that ranks third in the NBA behind the respective No. 1 seeds. So in projecting this series, we need to try to figure out what kind of performance we're going to see from both teams.
WHEN THE HEAT HAS THE BALL
Pace: 89.9 possessions per 48 minutes (15th NBA)
Miami Offensive Rating: 108.7 points per 100 possessions (6th NBA)
New York Defensive Rating: 102.5 points per 100 possessions (5th NBA)
In terms of NBA trends, "Pace and Space" had only slightly more shelf life than Linsanity. Miami began the season blowing opponents away with a devastating transition attack that appeared unstoppable. The Heat topped 100 possessions in three of their first five games, making Miami look like Phoenix East. By about mid-January, the Heat had settled back into a more comfortable half-court style.
Though both the team's pace ad Offensive Rating declined over the course of the season, Miami's game-by-game statistics show zero correlation between pace of play and offensive success. In fact, to the extent the Heat played better at a faster clip, it was largely achieved at the defensive end, where Miami was able to create turnovers to speed up the game. Even that connection was limited. The Heat continued to play well in the month of February at the pace we're likely to see during the playoffs.
One of the season's dumbest storylines/strawmen was the question of whether Miami was better off without Dwyane Wade cramping LeBron James' style on offense. There's little question that James is more valuable by himself because he can increase his usage rate in Wade's absence without sacrificing much efficiency, a notion reinforced by the splits Tom Haberstroh recently reported. However, what's better for James is not necessarily better for the Heat as a team. Miami has scored 5.2 more points per 100 possessions with both superstars on the floor than just James, according to lineup data from BasketballValue.com.
We haven't seen the two stars together much lately. Not counting the three minutes he played last Saturday against the Washington Wizards before dislocating the index finger on his left hand, Wade has played just two of the Heat's last nine games and seven times in the entire month of April.
Miami has been much more effective with just James than Wade alone, getting outscored by 4.0 points per 100 possessions in the latter scenario. That's actually worse than the Heat has done with neither star (-2.5 points per 100 possessions prior to a blowout loss in the season finale). That and the heavy minutes totals James has logged are indications that Miami was more James' team than Wade's during the regular season. How much Erik Spoelstra will ramp up Wade's playing time in the postseason remains to be seen.
New York counters with rookie stopper Iman Shumpert on Wade and a combination of Landry Fields and Carmelo Anthony defending James. Fields started the most recent meeting with the matchup, but was not in the game down the stretch. He may see his minutes cut with Amar'e Stoudemire back in the lineup. That would put Anthony on James most of the time, which isn't as bad as it sounds. On the rare occasions he is fully engaged defensively, Anthony's size and strength make him capable. He did a good job of forcing James to stay on the perimeter and allowed him just two makes in six attempts during the last matchup.
The Heat may find Chris Bosh an especially good matchup in this series when he's at power forward against Stoudemire, Anthony or Steve Novak. In any of those scenarios, Bosh should have an advantage in either quickness or size. He averaged 18.0 points and 10.3 rebounds in the three games against the Knicks. Add in James' 26.7 points and Wade's 26.0 and the Big Three combined for more than 70 points a night in the head-to-head meetings this season.
WHEN NEW YORK HAS THE BALL
Pace: 91.9 possessions per 48 minutes (5th NBA)
New York Offensive Rating: 105.7 points per 100 possessions (19th NBA)
Miami Defensive Rating: 101.1 points per 100 possessions (4th NBA)
During this series, Mike Woodson faces the challenging task of trying to fit Anthony, Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler together on the fly. Anthony enjoyed his most successful stretch of the season with Stoudemire sidelined by a back injury, which allowed him to move to power forward in a smaller lineup that spread the floor. Stoudemire returned for the last four games of the regular season but played center twice because Chandler was resting. When the two big men were on the floor together, Stoudemire continued to struggle.
The best news for the Knicks is how spry Stoudemire looked after sitting out four weeks. He had 22 points on 9-of-13 shooting at Atlanta and 21 points on 9-of-15 shooting at Charlotte. While those games happened to be the two Chandler sat out, there were times of the season Stoudemire appeared incapable of such dynamic performances.
The most workable solution for Woodson will probably be minimizing the minutes Chandler and Stoudemire are on the floor together by subbing for Stoudemire early and bringing him back as a backup center. That way, New York can continue to play the small lineups that have been so effective for Anthony and the team as a whole.
Miami is particularly well equipped to match up with the Knicks' fleet of effective wing players. It's possible that we could see both teams go with four wing players and one big man on a regular basis because both Shumpert and James can initiate the offense and each team has struggled to get consistent play from backup point guards Mike Bibby and Norris Cole.
As for defending Anthony, the Heat will use both James and Shane Battier. Anthony got going against Battier in the most recent matchup, shooting 4-of-7 from the field against the veteran defensive specialist. Anthony had his success against James too, shooting 6-of-13, but James was able to quiet him down the stretch as Miami pulled away. While both teams will look to make use of different matchups over the 48 minutes to save their stars' energy, expect Anthony and James to battle head-to-head late in games throughout the series.
The New York team Miami faces in this series bears little resemblance to the desultory group that slugged its way through the season's first month. The Knicks have dramatically upgraded their roster over the course of a year with a healthy Baron Davis, the addition of J.R. Smith and the emergence of Steve Novak. The result has been one of the league's deepest benches, which is New York's biggest advantage in this series, and a lineup capable of winning both shootouts and defensive struggles. The lingering question is how much of the difference in the Knicks' results is due to Stoudemire's absence. I think New York can win with Anthony, Chandler and Stoudemire coexisting, but doing so with a full training camp next fall is very different from trying to figure it out against one of the league's most talented teams.
The Heat has plenty to prove in its own right. The hope is that Spoelstra's tinkering during the final month of the regular season will produce a more consistent and cohesive playoff rotation. If nothing else, the experiment with James as a backup point guard looks like a keeper. When Miami is at full strength, only a handful of teams can compare to its combination of front-line talent. The Knicks are closer than a year ago but not quite there.
Miami in 6
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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