Better Late Than Never

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Spike Lee and the rest of Knicks Nation can finally breath a sigh of relief and strut around the Big Apple with their heads held high—at least for a couple days. The Knicks’ miserable 13 game playoff losing streak, dating back to April 2001, has finally ended. The monkey is off their back—the hoodoo is broken.

On Sunday afternoon Carmelo Anthony pulled out a monstrous playoff performance in front of a raucous crowd at MSG. Anthony overcame near exhaustion (he looked absolutely dead on his feet), to drop 41 points on Miami and extend the series to a game 5.

Whether Melo can repeat those heroics this Wednesday is another story, but after a miserable week for Knicks fans, Game 4 was well worth savouring.

Backs Against the Wall

After Miami put the Knicks through a hoops clinic for 3 games, it was gut-check time for Mike Woodson’s men. The Knicks’ faithful had witnessed their team swept out of the playoffs in their previous two first-round series, and were a loss away from seeing it happen all over again.

Carmelo, who has a very poor playoff record himself, answered the call and came up huge: expending every last ounce of energy and willing his side to victory. Amar’e Stoudemire also rose to the occasion, helping to smooth over his rocky relationship with Knicks’ fans in the process after Game 2’s locker-room debacle. Stoudemire put up a solid (albeit one-handed) 20-10 performance.

The win ensured that the Knicks could postpone their fishing trips for another few days at least.

A Long Time Coming

As good as the Knicks’ defense played, it was Melo who kept his team within touching distance, when at times it looked as though Miami was going to blow the game open. He put up 29 points through the first 3 quarters, playing the entire 3rd.

After a brief rest Woodson went back to his main man in crunch-time, and a visibly exhausted Melo didn’t disappoint. Anthony put up 12 crucial points down the stretch, including a massive 3 when the game was tied at 84-84.

It was the type of performance we all knew Melo was capable of. There isn’t a single player in the NBA who, when on form, scores with such languid ease. Melo can be lethal from the outside, as he illustrated by knocking down 3s with Shane Battier’s hand in his face on Sunday, and possesses the size and skill to post-up and go to work on the block.

In fact, Melo was the sole reason that many people, myself included, felt the Knicks could take a couple games in this series. The Heat were the better team coming into Game 1, and that hasn’t changed, but Melo’s scoring alone has always ensured that the Knicks had the potential to stretch out the series.

Up until Sunday, however, it looked as though Melo’s potential to win games would remain in the realm of the hypothetical.

His Game 4 performance was much overdue. The same player who had been playing the best ball of his career during the last month of the regular season, averaging over 30 points per game and shooting at 50%, had been exceptionally poor through the first 3 games. Coming into Sunday’s game, Melo was averaging a mediocre 21 points and only shooting 34% from the field. Just not good enough for a team that desperately needed him to shoulder the offensive load.

Suffocating Defense

Much of the credit for Carmelo’s poor shooting, and the poor shooting of the Knicks in general, has to go to the Heat’s defense. As a team Miami has been nothing short of spectacular on the defensive end, holding New York to totals of 67 and 70 points in Games 1 and 3 respectively. Udonis Haslem, Battier (up until Game 4), and LeBron have done a fantastic job of forcing Anthony to work for every bucket.

Collectively the Heat, not being the biggest team, have stifled the Knicks on the inside with their work-rate and athleticism, and have been masterful chasing J.R. Smith and Steve Novak off the 3-point line.

Nevertheless, despite the Heat’s great defense, the Knicks have done a fair job of shooting themselves in the foot in this series (as well as punching glass fire extinguisher cases). Melo and Smith, in particular, have had their share of good looks throughout, but have failed to consistently knock down the open jump shot.

After finally overcoming their playoff slump, however, the Knicks should be brimming with confidence heading to South Beach for Game 5.But confident or not, do they actually stand a realistic chance of returning to MSG for a game 6, or was Sunday afternoon’s win merely a feel-good consolation?

As great a spectacle as a Game 6 at MSG would be, it’s hard to see it coming into being. Sorry Spike.

A Perfect Storm

On Sunday the Knicks played fantastic hard-nosed playoff basketball. Melo, as I’ve already mentioned, played out of his mind. Tyson Chandler confirmed why he is the newly crowned Defensive Player of the Year and Amar’e played as well as can be expected from a dude with a mangled left hand.

And yet, even with all those boxes ticked the Knicks were a missed 3-point shot away from losing the game and being swept.

LeBron and Wade, who have been sensational at both ends for most of the series, were not at their best in Game 4. Bosh was average (although that’s becoming a theme) and Miami got absolutely nothing from their bench.

It also has to be said that Erik Spoelstra’s final play, with the Heat down 2, was difficult to understand. Wade, who, granted, has hit many big shots in his career, tried to play hero-ball but lost his dribble and was forced to take a fade-away 3. LeBron, who had the hot hand down the stretch, was left isolated on the three-point line to casually obverse proceedings. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

What I’m trying to say is that the Knicks need to play unbelievable basketball just to win a game against this Heat team, while at the same time hope that Miami performs well under their potential. That perfect storm came to fruition in Game 4, and still the Knicks won by JUST 2 points. There’s absolutely no margin for error.

Extending the series to 6 is going to be one tough task. The Heat were tied with San Antonio for the best record at home during the regular season (28-5) and will be fully motivated to finish the series in-front of their home crowd. Unfortunately, for the Knicks, it’s hard to imagine LeBron and Wade having back-to-back games where they’re below par.

Not that I’m fully willing to rule out another Melo masterpiece (he’s pretty darn good, and I like to leave part of myself sitting on the proverbial fence), but it will take another monumental performance for the Knicks to even get close to beating the Heat.

Collectively, the Knicks looked exhausted by the end of Sunday’s game. They left everything out on the floor, and will be short-handed for Game 5. With Baron Davis out to a gruesome knee injury (another unfortunate playoff theme this year), and Lin not yet ready, the Knicks’ rotation will be at full stretch on Wednesday night.

But at least the ignominious streak is over. The Knicks have finally won a playoff game again and ESPN Classic has another great MSG spectacle for future viewing. It may not mean much in the larger context of the series, but it means a lot to long suffering Knicks fans, and Carmelo’s suffering playoff reputation.

The embarrassment of another playoff sweep has been avoided, but if you’re a Knicks fan, just be prepared for a marginally less embarrassing 5-game ‘gentleman’s sweep’.

 

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