A classic rivalry gets revisited in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals when the Miami Heat and New York Knicks square off.
Chicago is the top seed in the East but No. 2 Miami is the team everyone was trying to avoid. Unfortunately for the New York Knicks their final game of the regular season was against the woeful Charlotte Bobcats.
Despite resting Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Baron Davis the Knicks locked up the No. 7 seed with a 104-84 win over the Bobcats, who lost their franchise-record 23rd straight game to end the season with the worst winning percentage in NBA history.
New York, meanwhile, won five of its last six games to finish 36-30 and will face the star-studded Heat in the first round. They were 0-3 against Miami in the regular season.
"We understand who we're playing," Knicks power forward Amar'e Stoudemire said.
Stoudemire was, of course, speaking off LeBron James, the best basketball player on the planet, Dwyane Wade, who is not far behind, and to a lesser degree, Chris Bosh -- "Miami Thrice."
After falling apart in last year's NBA Finals against Dallas, it's championship or bust in South Beach this time around and the Knicks, from the outside, looking in at least, seem like nothing more than a speed bump for LeBron and Company.
Knicks interim coach Mike Woodson, however, is playing the confidence card and thinks his club has the depth to make things difficult for Miami. New York was an impressive 18-6 under Woodson, who replaced Mike D'Antoni in mid-March.
"We will be tested but I like the way we battled for this last 24 games and now we have to turn it up more for the playoffs," Woodson told the New York Daily News. "I know my group can play with this team. We just have to put four solid quarters together. It takes four quarters to beat a team like that."
For what it's worth the Knicks seem to be buying in to Woodson's thinking and feel that all the injuries and turmoil they went through during the regular season has made them a battle-tested club, tailor-made for the postseason.
Of course, that's before the first punch comes from James and D-Wade during Game 1.
"I couldn't be happier. That's what we played for," Woodson said. "It was a great regular season and now it's playoff-basketball time. They will be ready. They're battle-tested, well-coached. It should be a good series."
The Knicks and Heat were once the game's biggest rivalry back in the late 1990s thanks to Pat Riley. Riley, the current Heat president, was the coach in New York from '91-95 and took the Knicks to the '94 NBA Finals. He resigned from New York via fax to move on to South Florida, creating quite a bit of acrimony with the New York faithful.
In '96-97, Riley's Heat defeated his old team in a physical seven-game series advancing to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
However, the '97-98, 1999 lockout-shortened, and '99-00 playoffs would be disappointments as they lost to the arch-rival Knicks; the first two in the opening round and the latter in the second round.
POINT GUARD: With Jeremy Lin and Linsanity still sidelined after left knee surgery, veteran Baron Davis will get the call. Once one of the top point guards in the NBA, injuries and a lack of conditioning have turned Davis into an ordinary player.
Mario Chalmers is much quicker and athletic than his counterpart but isn't a top-tier point guard himself. Chalmers will turn it over and the jumper comes and goes. He can, however, turn up the "Heat" defensively.
SHOOTING GUARD: Wade, the NBA Finals MVP in 2006 and a former scoring champion, is an athletic marvel and one of the league's best finishers around the rim. He plays recklessly and can handle the playmaking role, something his transition and penetration skills are tailor-made for. Wade is also a better option than James as a closer late.
Rookie Iman Shumpert will make the NBA's All-Defensive team one day. He has great athleticism and impressive length but his offensive game is too inconsistent right now.
CENTER: The Knicks' Tyson Chandler is one of the NBA's top defenders, the type of player that can erase mistakes on the perimeter by altering shot after shot. In fact, his presence allows New York's wing defenders to take chances and try to make things happen. Chandler is also a plus-rebounder and efficient offensive player that led the NBA in field goal percentage at a gaudy 67.9 percent.
Bosh missed the Heat's final six games with a strained left hamstring but has been practicing and should be 100 percent by Game 1. Bosh, obviously, isn't a natural center but has the offensive skills and quickness to make things difficult for Chandler, who will probably be more effective as a weak-side defender in this series.
"I've been trying to keep my mental focus sharp," Bosh told the Miami Herald. "That's been my challenge and it will continue to be my challenge. It could be an easy thing to just start worrying and why is this happening and what's going on but I've just been trying to stay focused and prepare for the first round as best as possible."
SMALL FORWARD: James is an unbelievable athlete with freakish strength and size. "The King" keeps getting better and better and when the jumper is falling, he is virtually unstoppable. The only hope for the opposition is to harass James into some bad shooting nights and pray his teammates come up small. Like most teams, the Knicks will try to turn James into a jump shooter.
"LeBron James is unbelievable," NBA Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Charles Barkley said. "People give him a hard time. He has to play so hard. He makes everyone around him better. He has to carry so much weight on this team."
Anthony, meanwhile, has really been hitting his stride lately. 'Melo is one of the game's best pure scorers, a player that can use his length to shoot over a zone or post-up on the blocks. He is, however, prone to defense lapses and turnovers.
"He's the best scorer in the NBA," Barkley said of Anthony, "but LeBron James is arguably the best defender in the NBA. [James] can shut [Anthony] down to where he won't be getting 30 or 40 a game against LeBron."
POWER FORWARD: Stoudemire has returned from a back injury and has looked like himself, one of the most athletic power forwards in the game. He's still capable of destroying defenses with his powerful drives to the hoop and leaping ability, although some of his lift is gone these days and he and Anthony have never seemed like a great fit together.
"I think it would be best for Amar'e to come off the bench," former NBA great Shaquille O'Neal said. "He doesn't have the same explosiveness that he had when he played for the Phoenix Suns. I think he could be the ultimate scorer off the bench."
Miami native Udonis Haslem is the Heat's glue-guy, a solid defender and rebounder with an excellent mid-range jumper. Haslem, however, doesn't have the athleticism to keep up with a healthy Stat.
"He just barreled through our doors, nine years ago in the summer league and forced us to create a roster spot for him," Spoelstra said of Haslem. "It's terrific to have a hometown guy like that from Liberty City, and he will one day be the mayor. He brings all of the intangibles that we want of a Miami Heat basketball player."
BENCH: The Knicks think they have a big edge here. They have two big-time three-point threats in J.R. Smith and Steve Novak as well as a couple of solid defenders in Landry Fields and Jared Jeffries, although Jeffries is struggling with a sore right knee.
"One of the biggest complaints about J.R. Smith is that even though he can shoot you into a bunch of games he can shoot you out just as quickly," ex-NBA coach Mike Fratello said.
Lin's injury really hurts here, however. If Lin was starting, Davis could come off the bench and give Woodson a solid 10-to-15 minutes. Instead the ancient Mike Bibby, who looks done as a player, is the backup quarterback, a key role since Davis wears down quickly.
The Heat bench is thin but it's not quite as bad as people think. They do have shooters in Mike Miller and James Jones, defenders like the lengthy Joel Anthony and veteran Shane Battier as well as rookie point guard Norris Cole, who has struggled down the stretch. Rotations also get shorter in the postseason, limiting the exposure of flawed players who tend to do just one thing.
"I think he [Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra] is trying to find chemistry in the second unit," former NBA star Reggie Miller said. "It's the supporting cast of Miami that's eventually going to decide a championship."
COACHING: Woodson should get some love for Coach of the Year since he turned the Knicks around and saved their season by building his isolation offense around Anthony. Now, he needs to get Stoudemire and 'Melo on the same page.
"(Woodson's) shown that he can coach and this team has responded to him," Fratello said.
Spoelstra, a Riley disciple, first joined the Heat in 1995 as the team's video coordinator and moved up from there. He preaches defense and conditioning but has never been regarded as an NBA heavyweight.
PREDICTION: It's all about slowing the Heat, particularly James and Wade in transition. Miami's half-court offense boils down to LeBron or D-Wade breaking you down off the dribble and Chandler's defense will be big there. That said the Heat generally only lose when they beat themselves and that's not likely to happen more than once or twice in this series.
"I love Dwyane Wade, but the Miami Heat are only going to go as far as LeBron James," Barkley said "The Miami Heat are not going anywhere unless LeBron James takes them to the Promised Land."
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: HEAT in 5