MIAMI — This season may be the first time in 17 years that the New York Knicks can actually say they are better than the Miami Heat.
New York, led by established standouts Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose and superstar-in-the making 7-3 center/forward/shooting guard Kristaps Porzingis, may be for real this time around.
The old rivals — more on that later — will meet on Tuesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena, and the Knicks (11-9) are in a virtual three-way tie for fifth place in the Eastern Conference. They have won three in a row and eight of their past 11 and are just one game out of third place.
Two games over .500 is nothing to get excited about for many NBA franchises, but it is nose-bleed country for the Knicks and their fans, who have had little to cheer about for nearly two decades.
Put it this way, at no point in the past three-plus seasons have the Knicks been three games over .500, which is what they would achieve if they beat the Heat on Tuesday.
New York’s most recent win, 106-98 on Sunday night against the visiting Sacramento Kings, was not a thing of beauty. The Knicks built a 21-point lead before allowing a Kings 18-0 run.
"I don’t think anybody on our team cares about stats — the main objective is just to get wins," Knicks guard Brandon Jennings told the media when asked about the concept of winning ugly. "But we’ve got to get better."
While the Knicks are striving to provide a little more quality in their wins, the Heat arrive home with a 7-13 record that does not befit this proud franchise.
They are in 12th place in the Eastern Conference. And while it’s early, they have dug themselves a hole if they plan to make the top eight and the playoffs.
On the bright side for Miami, the Heat is coming off a successful 2-1 road trip.
"You’d love to go 3-0," said Heat center Hassan Whiteside, who had 28 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks in the trip’s finale, a 99-92 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday night. "But anytime you go positive on a road trip, that’s motivation."
Whiteside could have another big game against the Knicks, and here are two reasons why:
First, Whiteside has big games against almost everybody lately, which is why he ranks first in the NBA in rebounds (14.9) and third in blocks (2.6). He is also averaging a team-best 17.8 points on 56.2 percent shooting from the floor.
Second, New York’s defense is not very good, especially against post players. Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins had 36 points and 12 rebounds on Sunday, and Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns had 47 points and 18 rebounds on Wednesday.
Tuesday’s game will be difficult to handicap since the Heat is just 2-7 at home and the Knicks are 2-6 on the road.
Injuries are another factor, mostly for the Heat.
For Miami, small forwards Luke Babbit (hip flexor) and Justise Winslow (wrist) and shooting guards Dion Waiters (groin) and Josh Richardson (ankle) are expected to sit out. All four have started games this season.
The Knicks are missing just one player, starting shooting guard Courtney Lee, who has missed two straight games due to a sprained left ankle.
Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek told the media Lee was feeling better but still not 100 percent, which was especially noticeable on lateral movements.
Now about that Knicks-Heat rivalry …
The last time the Knicks beat the Heat in a playoffs series was in 2000.
That was Patrick Ewing’s last season in New York, and the rivalry pretty much ended with his departure. The Knicks have been mostly miserable in the post-Ewing era, winning just one playoff series in all this time, beating the Boston Celtics in the first round in 2013.
Of course, the Heat won their second straight NBA title that year, so forgive them if they barely noticed New York winning a first-round series.
But for those who are too young to fully understand the Heat-Knicks rivalry … or for those too old to remember how captivating and thrilling it was, here is a CliffsNotes version of what went down in four glorious series in four consecutive years:
The bitterness between the organizations began when coach Pat Riley, upset that the Knicks would not let him have enough of a say in personnel decisions, bolted to Miami.
And in 1997, with Riley coaching the Heat and Jeff Van Gundy leading New York, there was high drama. New York led the conference semifinals 3-1, but the Heat came back to win 4-3.
There should be an asterisk next to that series win, however. Due to a brawl in Game 5, the Knicks suffered several key suspensions, causing two missed games by Charlie Ward and one each by Ewing, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson and John Starks. That crippled the Knicks’ chances.
In 1998, the Knicks got even, winning 3-2 in a first-round series again spiced by a fight, this time between Johnson and Alonzo Mourning.
In 1999, the Knicks again beat the Heat 3-2 in the first round, this time on Houston’s winning shot that bounced off the rim and off the backboard before finally falling through the net with just 0.8 seconds left. The eighth-seeded Knicks crushed the dreams of top-seeded Miami that year.
And in 2000, the Knicks beat the Heat 4-3 in a conference semifinal. Ewing dunked on Miami in the final seconds of what was a one-point New York win — a fitting way to end that era of this incredible rivalry.
Will Heat-Knicks ever be that good again?
Probably not, but the Whiteside-Porzingis matchup should be a very good one for years to come. Maybe a heated playoff series, a fight or two. … You never know.