The 2012 NBA Playoffs begin on Saturday, with the marquee matchup of the first round being right here in our backyard. For four straight years from 1997-2000, the New York Knicks and Miami Heat waged four memorable playoff wars, creating one of the most intense rivalries the NBA has ever seen. Knicks fans still cringe to this day when they hear the name P.J. Brown, and Heat fans will always wonder how Allan Houston's famous last-second shot didn't rim out. Now, 12 years later, the players may have changed but the rivalry figures to ratchet back up.
However, the Knicks come into the series as sever underdogs. Despite a respectable 36-30 record in the truncated season, the Knicks were unable to finish above seventh, thus prompting the trip to South Beach. The Knicks were up and down all season, but do enter the playoffs 17-6 since Mike Woodson took over as interim head coach. Carmelo Anthony has responded to the coaching change by playing like a League MVP over the past six weeks or so, while Tyson Chandler marked his first season as a Knick by transforming them into a stout defensive side, to the tune of perhaps being named the league's Defensive Player of the Year. And despite ongoing chemistry issues, the Knicks do still employ Amare Stoudemire, who has battled injuries but seems to be rounding into shape and form at the right time.
The Heat have their sights set a lot higher than the first round of the playoffs. It's title or bust in Year 2 of the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Not 2, Not 3, Not 4, Not 5 Experiment. The urgency will likely be apparent from the get-go, as the longer this team goes without a title, the more the pressure mounts. While many Knicks fans were hoping that the team finished eighth and matched up with the Chicago Bulls, the match is now set and there's no going back. It's Knicks-Heat once more. Here are some things to keep a close eye on throughout the series:
1.The Carmelo-LeBron Matchup: Carmelo Anthony has kept no secret his enjoyment going head-to-head against LeBron. And why should he? Facing James always seems to bring out the best in 'Melo. All series they'll find themselves matched up with each other on both ends of the floor. Anthony has showed a renewed defensive prowess under Woodson, and he'll have to show that full effort every minute to help slow down James. The Heat like to play a half court game, and now that Woodson has taken control, so do the Knicks. They now run their offense through Anthony, isolating him in his favored spot on the wing about a quarter of the time. Anthony can help keep LeBron off his game by making him work hard on defense.
2. The Benches: If there's anything the Knicks have a clear advantage in in this series (other than center...and we'll get to that), it's the bench. Like last season, Miami is tentative when it has to rely on its bench. Mike Miller, Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem are all long in the tooth, and neither is a scary offensive threat. The Knicks have two players in J.R. Smith and Steve Novak that can come off the bench and make a huge impact in the series. Both can get incredibly hot from three-point range (in Novak's case, he's infinitely on-fire) and the Heat allowed the second most three pointers in the league this season. The Knicks' bench will shoot often from the perimeter, and if they're on their game, the Knicks can shoot their way to a win.
3. Iman Shumpert's Defense on Dwyane Wade: This is rookie Iman Shumpert's first taste of playoff basketball, and he has a heck of a task. It's sink or swim for Shumpert, who will get the daunting assingment of having to shut down Wade. Wade has always performed well against the Knicks, and he's the Heat's top gun in crunch time situations. Shumpert has quickly become one of the league's top perimeter defenders, but Wade is in a class of his own. For the Knicks to have any chance whatsoever, Shumpert needs to give Wade fits. It will be a tall order.
4. Defending Chris Bosh: Bosh is the third "superstar" of Miami's Big Three, and often he falls under the radar with teams being so worried about James and Wade. It will be interesting to see how the Knicks play Bosh in this series from a defensive standpoint. Tyson Chandler can easily shut down Bosh, but Bosh likes to meander to the perimeter, and that would open up the paint for drives from Wade and James. Chandler will most likely matchup with Ronny Turiaf and/or Joel Anthony, leaving Stoudemire to contain Bosh. Stoudemire's usual less than pedestrian defense has hurt the Knicks in the past, and it could rear its ugly head again this series. The Knicks' best chance at slowing down Bosh might be Bosh slowing down himself by pulling a disappearing act, which isn't totally impossible.
5. The Tyson Chandler Factor: The news that Chandler has the flu and may be out or limited in Game 1 is terrible, unfortunate news for the Knicks, since Chandler is the best center in this series by a country mile. It's not a contest between Chandler and Joel Anthony/Haslem/Turiaf. Chandler also knows a thing or two about shutting down and defeating the Miami Heat, as he was instrumental in the Dallas Mavericks' Finals victory a year ago. He's been incredibly consistent all season, and the Knicks will expect, and need, more of the same.
Prediction: It's a shame the Knicks couldn't finish higher than seventh, because they're a talented team who has played playoff style ball under Woodson - with great results. The Heat are just a tough matchup for the Knicks. Anthony will carry the Knicks and help them make it interesting. The Knicks' bench may steal them a win along the way. But it will be too much LeBron, too much Wade for the Knicks, who will see their playoff series win drought extend to 12 years. Heat in six.
First Round Predictions:
No.1 Chicago Bulls over No. 8 Philadelphia 76ers: Derrick Rose's health is an ongoing concern, but it won't affect the Bulls until later on. Bulls in five.
No. 3 Indiana Pacers over No. 6 Orlando Magic: No Dwight Howard, no chance for the Magic, who now look less like a playoff team than any of the 16 qualifiers. Pacers in five.
No. 4 Boston Celtics over No 5. Atlanta Hawks: The Celtics' age will catch up with them at some point, but Rajon Rondo will be a matchup nightmare in this one. Celtics in six.
No. 1 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 8 Utah Jazz: The Spurs won't let last year's disastrous early playoff exit repeat. The Jazz are a nice story, and should be proud to have made the playoffs. Spurs in five.
No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 7 Dallas Mavericks: The Mavs won't successfully defend their title, but this will be a great series. Dallas can still bring it, and the Thunder have struggled a bit down the stretch. Oklahoma City gets through some adversity in a bit of a scare. Thunder in seven.
No. 3 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 6 Denver Nuggets: The Nuggets have no closer. The Lakers have the best one in the game. Lakers in six.
No. 4 Memphis Grizzlies vs. No. 5 Los Angeles Clippers: In a close series, it always helps to have the best player on the floor. That guy in this one? Chris Paul. Clippers in seven.