There is only one relevant question to be asked about the Eastern Conference now that the playoffs are before us: Is there a single team in that conference capable of beating the Miami Heat in a seven-game series?
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There are two legitimate answers to that question. The sexy answer is the sexy team, the New York Knicks. They have Carmelo Anthony, who claimed the league’s scoring title this week to cap a season that again thrusts him into the conversation as a top-three superstar. They also have the third-best offense in the NBA, the bright lights of the Big Apple and a No. 2 seed that says they’re a very real threat.
The other answer — the boring one, fashionable six weeks ago but now passé — is the Indiana Pacers. They are everything the Knicks are not: A defensive machine that rebounds, a team in a city as far removed in style points and big-city buzz as you can find from New York City, and a club whose star, Paul George, is as under-heralded as Melo is over-hyped.
So can anyone beat LeBron James and a Heat team playing with more confidence and swagger than anyone has since Jordan roamed the hardwood? Probably not, but if I have to pick one give me the stoic, boring choice every time.
The New York Knicks are an overvalued, big-city team that will falter in a postseason based on shortened rotations, half-court offenses, gritty defense and the tendency for the rim to look smaller and further away for all but the greatest basketball players on earth.
The Knicks are built for New York and its bright, bright lights — not the playoffs. They are all flash and fashion without the depth and blue-collar habits that make a champion. They score a third of their points from behind the three-point line, boast a mediocre defense and rely on a star with a history of being more interested in his own future than his team’s.
The Knicks open the playoffs against a depleted Boston team, and while there’s every indication they should and will take care of the Celtics it remains to be seen if this New York team has the stomach to finally win a playoff series.
The Pacers are a different animal and the Knicks’ likely second-round opponent.
The Pacers are the best defensive and rebounding team in the league, and their playoff exit against the Heat last year offered the kind of gut-wrenching, scar-inducing basketball lesson that usually translates into a more formidable effort the next time around.
In February, over dinner with Pacers star Paul George and now-injured veteran Danny Granger, both players turned taciturn when that series came up. They remember. They grew angry. They looked away. And they’ll use that burn as fuel to take care of the Knicks in that likely second-round playoff series so they can have a shot at revenge against Miami in the Eastern Conference finals.
Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks? They were more concerned last season with ousting Mike D’Antoni and squashing Linsanity than worrying about the fact they got manhandled in five games against the Heat in the first round.
And while both D’Antoni and Jeremy Lin’s subsequent departures opened the way for ‘Melo to make this his team in his image, and to score a lot of points, and to get the Knicks a two-seed, it’s hard to see them doing much damage, even if they prove me wrong and get past the Pacers and onto the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
Their 3-1 record against Miami this season came with better than 50-percent shooting from the 3-point line in two of those games and better than 40-percent shooting from the 3-point line in the other two. Anyone who thinks they can maintain that rate over a seven-game series against the Heat’s perimeter defenses might be interested in my offer to sell them exclusive rights to own the Brooklyn Bridge.
Some facts on the Knicks reliance on a level of three-point that is historically very, very difficult to maintain: They are 27-5 when they shoot better than 40-percent from the three-point line and a pedestrian 27-23 when they do not. And that 40-percent mark is a rate only eight teams have shot over the course of season, and four of those did so when they three-point line was shortened in the 1990s. This season, the Knicks are 6-0 against the Heat, Spurs and Thunder when they shoot better than 40-percent on threes and 0-2 when they do not.
The Knicks have to be historically great in the playoffs from the three-point line to be the two-seed everyone is expecting. The odds of doing that — over several seven-games series where teams play much better defense — are very, very slim.
There’s a reason, in the playoffs, why it’s better to rely on defense, points in the paint and a multitude of stars rather than just one go-to-guy, 3-point shooting and mediocre D. Because come those seven-game series guys suddenly start closing out and rotating better, those threes you’ve lived or died on all year become much harder to come by and stars rise up as everyone else seems even more mortal. The playoffs have a way of making offense harder to come by and stars a more selective category.
So can anyone beat Miami? The Chicago Bulls don’t have Derrick Rose. The Brooklyn Nets are very good but not in any way great. The Atlanta Hawks aren’t nearly capable of unseating LeBron Jamers and his teammates. Boston doesn’t have Rajon Rondo or the youth it once had, and Milwaukee stands absolutely no chance.
That leaves a Pacers team built on defense, rebounding and a young star willing to share the limelight, or a Knicks team that lives and dies on the three, plays middling defense and has as its key player a guy who hasn’t shared much of anything — especially the limelight — since he joined the league.
The answer, then, is this: Probably not, and if anyone can do it, it’s the Indiana Pacers.