NEW YORK – While the shorthanded New York Knicks were already missing some important helping hands, especially after Amar’e Stoudemire hurt his, LeBron James and the Miami Heat’s stifling defense made sure they’d not only keep an upper hand, but take a full stranglehold on the teams’ Eastern Conference quarterfinal playoff series.
After an uncharacteristic poor-shooting, turnover-filled three quarters, James scored 17 of his game-high 32 points in the fourth quarter to help second-seeded Miami coast to an 87-70 Game 3 victory and move within one more win of a first-round sweep before a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.
Stoudemire, New York’s $100-million forward, was the latest key Knick missing following an incident in which he severely cut his left (non-shooting) hand by putting it through a glass casing of a fire extinguisher outside the visiting locker room in an act of frustration, following New York’s Game 2 loss in Miami on Monday night.
Already absent with knee injuries were starting point guard Jeremy Lin (who last played on March 24th) and rookie combo guard Iman Shumpert (the Knicks’ best on-the-ball defender and significant offensive contributor), who tore his anterior cruciate ligament and lateral meniscus to end his season in Game 2.
Despite its roster depletion and offensive struggles, what was left of New York’s gritty squad built an early double-digit lead and hung very tough through three quarters, but James broke open a close game with a personal 8-0 run over the first 1:23 over the final period and the Heat never looked back.
That was after James picked up his fourth personal foul and went to the bench for the last 7:23 of the third quarter, with the game tied 42-42, before the star forward played the entire final period and made six of Miami’s ten shots in the last quarter.
James, who matched his point total in Game 1, when he outscored the Knicks’ starting five by two points, scored three more points than New York and made one more shot from the floor than the seventh-seeded Knicks in the fourth quarter, after he committed seven turnovers over the first three periods.
“It was difficult for me to sit down in the third quarter with seven minutes to go,” James said. “That is why you have a great supporting cast and a great player like D-Wade (Miami guard Dwyane Wade) who made shots.”
In a third period in which both teams combined for just 38 points (22 by Miami), Wade (20 points, four rebounds, four assists, five steals) scored 12 points while making four of seven field goal attempts.
Seeking to quash New York’s hopes in the opening quarter, Miami jumped out to leads of 9-4 and 19-10 with center Chris Bosh (nine points, team-high ten rebounds) leading the way for the Heat with six points and three rebounds in the period after flying back to Miami to see the birth of his son on Thursday morning, and then coming back to New York in time for the game.
Head coach Erik Spoelstra told his team prior to the game that Bosh was still en route to the game less than one hour before tip-off as Bosh was stuck in heavy New York traffic coming from the airport.
“And, just as I said that, in he walks. I think they thought I set that up on purpose,” Spoelstra joked.
A Bosh layup that give the Heat a 17-8 lead with 4:59 left in the first quarter was the last field goal Miami scored – as the Heat missed 12 straight shots from the floor – until a driving layup by 10:09 later. That came after the Knicks closed the first period with nine straight points to start an 18-1 spurt (during which six different Knicks scored) that gave New York a 28-20 lead with 8:12 left in the first half.
Wade’s basket started a 7-0 Heat run that pulled Miami to within 28-27 with 5:34 left in the half, but four different Knicks scored during a 12-2 New York run that extended the Knicks’ lead to 40-29 with 1:44 to go in the half.
Miami closed the half on another 7-0 spurt though, to cut its deficit to just 40-36 by intermission.
New York then went cold in the third quarter, shooting just three of 15 from the field, with star forward Carmelo Anthony (team-high 22 points on just 7 of 23 shooting from the floor) making just one of seven field goal attempts in the period.
The Heat opened a 51-46 lead before Anthony’s only made basket of the quarter – on a wild, forced bank shot from the right blocks as he was wrapped up by Wade – plus a free throw, tied the score, 51-51 with 1:46 remaining in the frame.
A layup by Wade gave the Heat a 58-53 lead, but a left-wing three-pointer by reserve point guard Mike Bibby (eight points) brought the Knicks to within 58-56 heading into the final period.
Bibby made two of four field goals, taking three-pointers only, but the rest of his teammates collectively made as many treys on 18 attempts. Reserve guard J.R. Smith (12 points on just five of 18 shooting from the field) missed all five of his three-point attempts and starting point guard Baron Davis (seven points, three assists) misfired on all three of his treys. Anthony (in four attempts) and starting forward Landry Fields (nine points, three three-point attempts) each made only one three-pointer.
An Anthony jumper closed New York to within 69-62 with 6:59 left, but consecutive three-pointers by starting point guard Mario Chalmers (19 points on seven of 11 shooting from the floor) capped an 8-0 Heat run that increased Miami’s lead to 77-62 with 5:40 left in the game, and the Knicks could get no closer than 12 points the rest of the way.
Chalmers was a sizzling five of eight from behind the arc as Miami took nine more threes and made seven more than New York.
Seventh-year forward Steve Novak, the league’s most accurate three-point shooter this season (47.2 percent), made his first start in more than three years, and his first playoff start, but he failed to score as New York got him only two shots and just one three-point attempt in over 22 minutes.
As Wade pointed out, stopping in particular, Anthony overall, and Novak and Smith from the perimeter was by design. “Melo is one of the best scorers in the game,” said Wade. “LeBron tried to make it as tough on him as possible… We’ve done a good job getting out to their shooters and not allowing them to shoot the comfortable threes. You know that Novak and J.R. can get hot at any time.”
“They beat me up as much as they can. They throw everything at you,” Anthony said, smiling. “I heard a couple guys on their bench yelling, ‘Beat him up!'”
On the sharp-shooting Novak’s inability to get open, interim head coach Mike Woodson said, “Their defense was awfully good… They are not leaving him. I thought by him being out there, it would at least open up our pick-and-rolls. They were really good at showing on the pick-and-rolls and then supporting and then getting back out to Novak. He just didn’t have any open looks.”
Woodson, who took over an 18-24 team after ex-Knick head coach Mike D’Antoni resigned on March 14th, guided New York to an 18-6 finish to the regular season including an 11-1 record at home. But, that lone loss at MSG was to Miami, and the Knicks are now 0-6 against the Heat this season, 0-4 under Woodson.
The victory was the first postseason win at the Garden for both James and Wade, who respectively, rank first and second in active career scoring averages at MSG.
Regarding his team’s lack of ball movement, Woodson said, “Offensively, we were so stagnant. Tonight, we played one side of the ball all night long, which was ridiculous.”
Starting center Tyson Chandler (ten points, game-high 15 rebounds, two shots) agreed with his coach, saying “I feel like we had better ball movement in the first half. The ball kind of slowed down in the second half… [Miami closes] out really fast. The only way you can beat them is by ball movement. You can’t beat them individually. They are too athletic… If you keep the ball on one side of the floor, you are never going to beat them.”
Former Knick center Dikembe Mutombo presented Chandler with his 2011-2012 Defensive Player of the Year award at midcourt before the game.
Shortly after that, the entire floor was covered with a white tarp which creatively became a court-sized screen for a stirring Knicks video tribute.
Less than three hours later however, New York was pushed to the brink of postseason elimination while losing an NBA-record 13th straight playoff game. The Knicks broke the record of a dozen straight playoff losses by Memphis, from 2004-2006. New York’s drought spans a much longer time period dating back to its last postseason win on April 29, 2001, during a first-round series in which the Knicks were up 2-1, but lost in five games to Toronto.
The Heat will look to continue New York’s streak for one more game as the Knicks try to shift the series back to Miami when the teams are back at the Garden for Game 4 on Sunday at 3:30 pm ET. As of now, Stoudemire has an outside chance of returning for that contest and Lin remains doubtful until at least a possible Game 5 at the earliest.
With no NBA team having ever overcome a 3-0 deficit, it now seems just a matter of time before the Heat will put away the Knicks and win the series, but Anthony said, “We believe. Our heads are high, our confidence is still high. We are not moping around, hanging our heads. I am not allowing us to do that. We have a couple of days to get right and Sunday is another chance to get out there and win a basketball game.”
And, if nothing else, maybe put an end to that league record for playoff futility.