By Ben Golliver
The Knicks blew out the Heat 112-92 on Thursday in Miami to extend their winning streak to five and improve to an Eastern Conference-best 14-4. New York broke open a tie game at halftime and overcame 31 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists from LeBron James, who was not pleased with his team's performance.
• The one-sentence review of this game: The Heat got burned for coasting, again, and for playing lackluster team defense, again. That's the simplest account but it does a disservice to the Knicks, and particularly Mike Woodson, who is firmly among the early front-runners in the Coach of the Year conversation. Not only does Woodson have seemingly every one of his key role players performing at or above expectations, but he also clearly has cultivated a culture that balances fun and accountability.
New York had loads of mental excuses to make entering the game: Carmelo Anthony was sidelined with a finger injury; it was the second night of a road/road back-to-back; and the Heat have been an excellent home team during the James era and were likely to be motivated after a day off and an embarrassing loss to the hapless Wizards on Tuesday.
And yet, when this game reached its pivot point, at the start of the fourth quarter, it was the Knicks who responded as if every factor was working for them rather than against them. So often we see double-digit leads evaporate in seconds during the final period, especially when more talented teams are playing at home. But rather than let a Heat push make this a game, the Knicks, largely relying on their reserves, went on a 12-4 run to open the quarter, pushing a 10-point lead to 18.
All four Knicks who scored during the stretch -- Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace, Steve Novak, and J.R. Smith -- are among the players who have found the right fit and performed at or above expectations for Woodson. The group shares the ball well, celebrates (perhaps over-celebrates) each other's successes and has the potential to blow any game open if the outside shots are clicking. The Knicks on Thursday made 18-for-44 from three-point range -- the second game in a row in which they've launched more than 40 three-pointers -- with nine of the 18 makes coming from the reserves. Novak, who hit four threes and whose 18 points was one fewer than Miami's total bench output, was so hot late in the game that Wallace even broke out Novak's signature "Discount Double Check" celebration. (Watch the .GIF here.)
Star-less, on the road and against top competition, the Knicks played focused, efficient, unselfish and top-shelf basketball. The players deserve praise, but don't short Woodson here either. He's pushed the right buttons, called the right numbers and orchestrated the proper combinations this season.
• The star of the night not mentioned above: Raymond Felton. The Knicks' starting point guard fought through a hand injury to score a season-high 27 points and add seven assists, four rebounds and two steals. The number of the night: six three-pointers. Felton shot 6-for-10 from deep in 35 minutes; by comparison, he was 6-for-43 (14 percent) in his first 13 games with the Trail Blazers last season. In other words, he hit the same number of shots in Miami in one night as he did in the first three weeks of last season. There's hot shooting and there's whatever you want to call that.
After Thursday's barrage, Felton improved to 41.9 percent from long range on the year, a career high by more than 3 percent. Felton made it clear that he came into this season motivated and fit after a tough 2011-12 season, but that's not enough to explain his hot start. The chart below shows how shaky Felton's range has been throughout his career; the fluctuations are pretty significant.
How long Felton can keep shooting this well is an open question, but he's clearly benefiting from the open looks created by the Knicks' perimeter passing attack. Pairing him in lineups with Kidd has proved mutually beneficial.
• I'm firmly in the "Don't panic under practically any circumstances except serious injury" camp with these Heat. Rob Mahoney did an excellent job here earlier this week looking at the Heat's lack of intensity on defense. The numbers don't lie: Miami is fully earning its No. 23 rating in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession) with small-ball lineups that struggle to protect the paint and clear the glass while also failing to provide help defense and rotate well enough to slow top offenses. I can't be convinced, at least for awhile, that it matters. Miami made its name on both sides of the ball last season, posting the No. 4 defense during the regular season and the No. 5 defense in the playoffs. The team's top-12 players from 2011-12, in terms of minutes logged, are all back this season. The major differences: the desperate chip-on-the-shoulder hunger was satiated with the title and three major challengers, Chicago, Indiana and Orlando, all look like shells of their former selves. Coasting through the regular season was a totally predictable, and excusable, development. Miami is still 12-5, second best in the East and tops in the Southeast Division; the only thing the Heat have really learned so far is that the Knicks, who have now spanked them twice, look to be formidable challengers.