LeBron James and the Miami Heat have taken the next step to capture a championship while the New York Knicks once again can’t live up to expectations.
Having Thursday off from practice is Miami's first playoff prize, and although a five-game win over the Knicks might have seemed easy, the reigning Eastern Conference champions insisted afterward that it was more grinding than it appeared.
James had 29 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade both scored 19 points and the Heat beat the short-handed Knicks 106-94 in Game 5 of an East first-round series Wednesday night. Miami will host the Indiana Pacers in Game 1 of the East semifinals on Sunday afternoon.
"Even though it was a five-game series," Wade said, "it was a very tough series."
For the Heat, it was only the first step. They have one goal — getting back to the finals and winning it all — and that was likely why even beating the longtime rival Knicks prompted, at most, a subdued celebration.
"We do not take this for granted," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "This was a tough series. We feel very good about moving on and it'll only get tougher from here."
Carmelo Anthony scored 35 points for the Knicks, including a spinning jumper over James at the end of the third quarter that pulled New York within 81-67. It was far from being enough to stave off an all-too-familiar playoff result for Anthony, part of that 2003 draft class that also yielded James, Bosh and Wade.
Anthony has played 54 postseason games, being part of wins only 17 times. A misleading stat for certain — it's hardly all on him — and no shortage of people in the Heat organization interrupted their celebrating of a series-clincher to tip their caps Anthony's way afterward.
"We fought, under the circumstances," Anthony said. "I'm not one to make any excuses for anything. ... But Miami, they're a tough defensive team. They stick to what their schemes are."
Head-to-head, Anthony and James both scored 139 points in the series. James shot 48 percent from the field, Anthony 42 percent. James averaged 6.2 rebounds and 5.6 assists, Anthony averaged 8.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists.
"It was fun, man," James said. "He's one of the most competitive players I've ever played against in a playoff series."
Amare Stoudemire scored 14 points, Landry Fields and J.R. Smith both added 12, Mike Bibby had 10 and Tyson Chandler grabbed 11 rebounds for New York, which is 1-8 in playoff games since Anthony and Stoudemire became teammates.
"Miami is a very good team," Stoudemire said. "You have to give credit to them."
Stoudemire fouled out with 4:48 left, and the Knicks put together one more run with hopes of extending the season. New York cut the margin to 11 points four times in a 2-minute span, but Miami answered every time, the last of those a 3-pointer by Shane Battier with 54 seconds left.
That sent the white seat covers flying in all corners of the arena, the fans knowing it was finally over.
"There's a lot of pride that takes place in this kind of series," Wade said.
James had 13 points on only six field-goal attempts by halftime, Wade shook off a scoreless first quarter with 12 in the second, and Miami went into the break leading 55-44.
The margin was less than 10 points for only 90 seconds of the third quarter. Stoudemire went to the bench with his fifth foul with 6:41 left in the third, and Miami went on an 11-2 spurt not long after to all but seal the outcome. It was 67-58 when Fields made two free throws with 4:49 left in the quarter — and then the Heat's "Big Three" needed just 3 minutes to blow the game open.
Bosh and Wade combined for six points in that flurry, James the other five, including a 21-footer with 1:29 left to put Miami up 78-60.
"We stress moving the ball," Bosh said. "We had some fantastic possessions."
For the Knicks, it was not a fantastic finish.
New York's season started with great expectations. Not long after the lockout ended the Knicks acquired Chandler from Dallas, a move made possible by using the amnesty clause on Chauncey Billups.
Those moves were expected. Just about everything else that happened was not. From the firing of coach Mike D'Antoni to the emergence of Jeremy Lin before he was sidelined by a knee injury, the Knicks had a roller-coaster ride that continued with a debilitating series of injuries against Miami.
Rookie guard Iman Shumpert was lost in the third quarter of Game 1 to a torn knee ligament, Stoudemire sliced his left hand after taking out his frustrations on a metal-and-glass fire extinguisher case after a Game 2 loss, and Baron Davis shredded his knee so badly in Game 4 that he is expected to be out a year — at least.
"I thought we played well in spurts," Knicks interim coach Mike Woodson said. "Our guys got a short taste of what playoff basketball's about. It's something this summer we've got to sit and think about and hopefully get ready for next season."
He didn't put any extra emphasis on the word "hopefully," but he could have. One of New York's first orders of business this offseason will likely be deciding if Woodson will be back on the sideline, as many expect.
"Woody's done a heck of a job with that team," Spoelstra said.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.