Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 5/6/12
NEW YORK For at least one game, and for the first time in a long time, the New York Knicks finally played like a team that belongs in the playoffs, thrusting themselves to an 89-87 win over the Miami Heat and snapping what had been a 13-game playoff losing streak, the longest in NBA history. "It's about time," Knicks head coach Mike Woodson said after Sunday's win. "This team is really up to winning games. There's no doubt, we proved we can beat anybody in this league." While that's putting it a little optimistically, if not to say silly, Carmelo Anthony's burst of scoring and Amar'e Stoudemire's gutsy return did give the Knicks a rarity: some dignity in the playoffs. "Tonight was a big night for us, a big game for us," said Anthony, who finished with 41 points. "We stepped up to the challenge." And the Heat, for at least one game, again raised questions about their ability to close out games in high-pressure situations. They were, after all, facing a battered Knicks squad. Baron Davis was out by then with a season-ending injury. Stoudemire, as well as he was playing, had a recent hand injury. Jeremy Lin and Iman Shumpert are out with injuries. And Anthony's offensive prowess has been muted in this series when LeBron James has been tasked with stopping him. In surrendering the loss to New York, there are plenty of people for whom that same small voice is again wondering: Why can't the Miami Heat seem to win games they should in the fourth quarter? This time, the answer was easier than in times past because of Erik Spoelstra. Earlier this series, when Anthony had gotten hot, Spoelstra responded by letting James blanket him with his stifling defense. It was the same recipe used to wipe out Derrick Rose's effectiveness in last year's Eastern Conference finals. But Sunday, Spoelstra elected to let Shane Battier keep his Melo-defensive duties throughout the fourth quarter, and Melo took advantage, closing with 12 of his game-high 41 points. That, along with Stoudemire's 20-point, 10-rebound return from his self-inflicted hand injury, were keys factors to the Heat allowing the Knicks to force a Game 5 Wednesday in Miami. "We went a little bit small and (LeBron) was guarding (Tyson) Chandler, creating some other things that we could do defensively," Spoelstra said. "But we still had enough opportunities to win this game, regardless of who was guarding Anthony." That's true, but those other opportunites also take us on to another Spoelstra mistake. As the fourth quarter faded, LeBron James rattled off the Heat's final six points, including a huge 3-pointer to tie the game with1:16 left. It was, it seemed, more proof LeBron is ready to be the player at the end of playoff games that he was this past season: the greatest on earth. Yet, with the game on the line, Spoelstra elected to go with Wade instead of LeBron's hot hand. With 14.8 seconds left and the Heat down two and with the ball, LeBron inbounded to Wade. Wade attacked the basket, found daylight to his right and then lost his handle on the ball. "It became a broken play at that point," Spoelstra said. It was a broken-play call the moment Spoelstra drew it up. This is not last year, and it cannot be if the Heat hope to win a championship. Wade is dangerous, yes, but he's also older and slower. LeBron, on track to win his third MVP award, is presumably a new man who can handle what he couldn't last year moments like Sunday afternoon's, when the game could have ridden on his shoulders, and on his hot hand. If that is so if the pain of last season helped LeBron evolve into the complete player many say he now is then in that moment Spoelstra must trust his star. If that is so, and it might be, then the fact that must dictate all things is that this is now unquestionably LeBron James' team. Which makes that his shot, too. Proof LeBron might actually be that guy, that new and improved version? He was gracious toward his coach's decision to draw a play that did not include him as the primary option. He didn't offer up so much as a hint of resentment, a marked change from last season. "I knew that, for the most part, that Melo was going to try to deny me, so we came out of the timeout going pick-and-roll with D-Wade and (Chris Bosh) knowing they were going to make a switch," LeBron said. "He got in the lane and didn't have a good look initially and he ended up dribbling the ball for a 3 that he has made before, but it just didn't go for us." Said Wade: "We gave ourselves plenty of chances, but their star played big and made big shots." Yes, and so did the Heat's star, LeBron James, who finished with 27 points. That includes nine points in the fourth quarter of a close, raucous game that's as likely to simulate real pressure as anything else the Heat will face before the conference finals. What a shame Spoelstra didn't give him one more chance to show just what he can do in that kind of situation. What a shame Spoelstra didn't let his star have a chance to snuff out 'Melo's scoring acumen one more time. The Heat have a very good chance of winning it all. But it will require LeBron James to be the person who makes it happen in close, difficult games and Erik Spoelstra to be the person who trusts him to do it on both sides of the ball. You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at foxsportsreiter@gmail.com.
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