NEW YORK – For almost 2½ games between the top two teams in the Eastern Conference this season, it appeared that the East’s second-best team had the number of the best squad in the East.
That was before the NBA’s team to beat, guided by the league’s top all-around player, returned things to normal.
Star forward LeBron James scored 12 of his 29 points, grabbed five of his 11 rebounds and handed out three of his seven assists in the fourth quarter to rally the Miami Heat (43-14) from a 16-point deficit to a 99-93 victory over the New York Knicks (35-21) before a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden and a national television audience on Sunday.
Miami’s 14th straight victory snapped New York’s far more modest three-game win streak and avenged a pair of early season 20-point losses to the Knicks, who after leading by two points late, were outscored 14-6 over the final 6:19.
One of the earlier 20-point decisions occurred in Miami without an injured Carmelo Anthony, who entered Sunday’s game with a league-leading 28.6 points per game, three spots ahead of James’ 27.1 point-average.
While Anthony surpassed his own scoring average with a game-high 32 points, he managed just four points in each of the final two quarters, following a brilliant 24-point first half.
Only seven of those came during the second period, when New York played one of its best quarters of the season and outscored Miami 37-22, to break open a close game and lead 59-45 at halftime.
But, in the second half, the Knicks were held to just three points less than they scored in the second frame, while being outscored by the same 20-point margin they defeated the Heat by in their two wins over Miami on Opening Night and December 6th.
“We can’t beat anyone when we score 34 points in a half,” said Anthony. “It’s not going to happen.”
While Anthony acknowledged that the Heat “made adjustments,” New York mainly self-destructed with an uncharacteristically high 18 turnovers and by not looking for Anthony despite the league’s best scorer not being double-teamed that often.
Although the Knicks made a hot 55.8 percent (24 of 43) shots from two-point range, nearly two-fifths (29 of 74) of their total shots came from behind the arc, with the biggest culprit in that regard being the often overly shot-happy reserve guard J.R. Smith, who scored 13 points and grabbed a dozen rebounds.
Smith attempted only four shots from inside the arc and took nearly half (14) of New York’s 29 three-pointers, while making just three. Ten of those tries came in the second half, when Smith misfired on four of five three-point attempts in each of the last two quarters.
“I’ve got to talk to him, and get him to go to the basket [more],” said head coach Mike Woodson on Smith’s misguided shot selection. “Fourteen is a lot of threes [for Smith to take in one game] if he’s not making them.”
Woodson also added that Smith “is learning how to be a scorer,” which was a strange comment considering that Smith is a nine-year NBA veteran who has averaged well into double digits in scoring over that time, and by now, should easily be able to determine good shots from bad ones – especially playing alongside the league’s best scorer in Anthony.
While seven different players scored for the Heat in the opening quarter, Anthony made all but one of his five field goal attempts and all but one of his nine foul shots in the period to finish with 17 first-quarter points and keep New York within 23-22 as the stanza ended.
As the second quarter began, guard Jason Kidd (14 points, eight rebounds, six assists) suddenly awoke from a prolonged shooting slump to make his first four three-point attempts and help the Knicks to a 42-37 edge. Anthony then scored seven points and added two assists during a 17-3 surge that gave New York a game-high 59-43 advantage before the Knicks settled for a 59-45 halftime lead.
Starting with the last two points of the half, Miami used a 14-4 run to move to within 63-59 a little more than five minutes into the third quarter, but Anthony scored the next four points before Smith made a three to push the Knicks’ lead back to 11 points, a margin that New York would match twice more in the period.
The defending league champion Heat would not go away quietly however, as reserve forward Shane Battier (12 points) made the first of his four three-pointers (in as many attempts) to cap an 8-1 quarter-closing run that trimmed the Knicks’ lead to just 77-73 heading into the final period.
James began to take over from there, following an Anthony layup with consecutive threes, to tie the game, 79-79, with 10:07 remaining.
Forward Amar’e Stoudemire (12 points of 5 of 7 shooting from the floor in just over 21 minutes) grabbed a rebound and scored the next three Knick points, to keep New York within 83-82, but Woodson sat the 6-foot-11 Stoudemire over the last 7:56, saying he wanted to “go smaller” rather than forcing Miami to adjust to a bigger New York lineup.
That could be something Woodson might want to reconsider in the future, as there’s nothing smaller than coming up short of a big victory.
After guard Dwyane Wade (20 points, 13 in the second half, to go along with eight rebounds and a game-high eight assists) made a jumper, an Anthony layup and a Smith three put the Knicks up for a final time, 87-85, with 6:20 left.
Following an efficient 6 of 8 shooting from the floor, and 11 makes in 12 free throw attempts (while Miami went 7-for-10 from the line) in the first half, Anthony took just two second-half free throws (making both), missed six of seven field goal attempts in the third quarter and took just four shots (making two) from the field in the fourth period, including none over the last 4:51 of the game.
Besides his teammates failing to look for him down the stretch, what also slowed Anthony down was the defense of James, who switched onto Anthony defensively in the second half after not guarding New York’s best player in the first half.
“He had to take the challenge in the fourth quarter against the toughest cover in the league,” said head coach Erik Spolestra, who wanted to give James (who played the entire second half) a rest in the fourth quarter, but said, “I couldn’t get him out… if I would have, he probably would have strangled me.”
Spoelstra also praised James’ energy and offense, saying, “His motor is limitless. Either soring or facilitating for us, he was strong and was the strongest after 40 minutes of basketball.”
A layup by starting center Chris Bosh (16 points) tied the game, 87-87, before a short jumper by Wade put Miami ahead for good, 89-87, with 4:29 to go, and a tip-in by James doubled that lead to 91-87.
Two layups by starting point guard Raymond Felton (nine points, two assists, four turnovers) kept the Knicks within striking distance, down just 93-91, but a James layup extended the Heat’s advantage to 95-91, with 1:38 remaining, just after Smith missed another three-pointer.
Felton turned the ball over on the next possession, and Bosh made a jumper to increase Miami’s lead to 97-91 before a couple of Felton free throws trimmed that edge to 97-93.
However, after James missed a jumper, and with New York finally looking again for its best player, Smith made a lazy cross-court pass to Anthony, who exasperatingly hung his head down as James took the Knicks’ final turnover the other way for an uncontested dunk that closed the scoring with 23.6 seconds left. After he landed, James stopped to give a taunting stare into the MSG crowd.
To his credit, a dejected Smith, sitting in front of his locker, didn’t shirk responsibility for his poor decision-making.
“Three for 14 from three isn’t good,” he said. “I just have to find another way to help my team on offense.”
While Anthony left the decision on the late-game benching of Stoudemire to Woodson, he left a slight hint that he might prefer Stoudemire (who has shot 58 percent from the floor in 25 games of the bench since returning from knee surgery) on the floor in such situations, by saying, “[Stoudemire] has played his ass off.”
The Knicks maintain a three-game lead on Brooklyn for the Atlantic Division lead, but they fell a half-game behind the Indiana Pacers in the race for the East’s two seed, pending the outcome Pacers’ home game against Chicago on Sunday night.
Looking to set a new franchise record for consecutive victories, Miami will visit Minnesota on Monday night, while New York begins a busy stretch of three contests in the next four days, with a game in Cleveland on the same night.