MIAMI -- This was a big day for the Heat, who controlled everything within their reach and benefited from the worst kind of luck. Derrick Rose is out of the way, sadly, and the Knicks provided little resistance in their playoff-opening 100-67 bludgeoning Saturday.
The Heat weren't going to admit it, but the most relevant event took place a thousand miles away. The ACL injury to Rose's left knee changes the outlook of the Eastern Conference playoffs. As well as the top-seeded Bulls performed in the regular season during Rose's absences, it's naïve to think they could beat Miami without the league's reigning MVP. Now the main challengers in the East become the Pacers, Celtics and Hawks, none of whom has been viewed as a dynamic title contender this season.
"I worry about the Knicks,'' said LeBron James of Rose. "It's unfortunate that the injury has happened for him and that team, but I worry about the Knicks. I don't worry about the Bulls.''
The Knicks gave little cause for worry Saturday. They shot 35.7 percent and committed an amateurish 27 turnovers. This game was all done in the second quarter, when LeBron seized control and Carmelo Anthony let him have it. At halftime the Heat were up 54-31 while Anthony was just 1-of-9. At the same time, James had an efficient 23 points on only seven field-goal attempts and 11 free throws along with three typically disruptive steals.
James finished with 32 points on 14 attempts from both the field and the free-throw line. It was his first postseason game since he ended the NBA Finals passively on this court 10 months ago as America's villain. "I waited a long time for this opportunity to get back to the postseason,'' he said. "We're more comfortable this year, coming from us being together for two years now. We understand the system, we all trust each other.''
This game spelled out exactly how much times have changed in the NBA since the previous decade, when the Heat and Knicks used to wrestle under the glass and foul one another in all kinds of extracurricular ways. Now as soon as they started cursing at one another at least one referee steps in to break it up. Amar'e Stoudemire (nine points and five rebounds in 32 negligible minutes) said he and his friend Udonis Haslem were arguing over whether Haslem was going to make his free throws in the first quarter when they were assessed double-technical fouls.
These two franchises used to physically beat each other up. But in today's NBA, the game is less about punishing the opponent and more about looking like a victim. The old-timers must hate to see what has become of this rivalry.
It climaxed in the second-to-last minute of the first half while James was guarding Iman Shumpert in the backcourt. James blindly backed up into a hard screen set by center Tyson Chandler, who was moving toward LeBron and deserving of a foul. For a moment LeBron turned into a crash test dummy, his arms flailing as if he were suspended in slow motion before he fell in a heap. When he got up, staggering away like one of those victims who wears a neck brace to a hearing, the referees responded by penalizing Chandler with a Flagrant 2 foul even though he had set a screen without extending his arms away from his body.
A review of the video reduced the crime to a Flagrant 1. Would it have amounted to that much if the victim hadn't been LeBron?
There was no doubt that James was in pain from the whiplash. The most important part of the entirely overblown event was his constructive reaction, as he personally outscored the Knicks 9-0 to finish the second quarter. Afterward, James refused to make much of the foul or his revenge. "I felt emotion from our fans," he said. "They didn't like the play.''
In this era of caution and niceties, the Heat understand who they are and what they are trying to do. The Knicks, on this day at least, didn't have a clue.
Anthony was surprised to find the Heat fronting him defensively. That led to him going 0-for-7 in the first quarter when James first drew the assignment of covering him. The Knicks surrendered 11 turnovers in the second while trying to score without Anthony, because he was being guarded by Shane Battier. To watch Battier endlessly harass Anthony while drawing several charges from a variety of Knicks was to assume that Anthony was 33 and Battier was 27, when in fact it is the other way around. "He's going to make adjustments like all great players do,'' insisted James when the post-game questioning focused on Anthony's awful start.
"Their game plan was to speed us up,'' said Anthony. "Most importantly, we want to remain positive. The fun starts now.''
Of course Anthony isn't going to go 3-for-15 again, with more turnovers (four) than field goals. And Tyson Chandler (no points and three rebounds in 21 minutes) should be recovered from the flu that enervated him. And yet it's hard to believe that any improvements the Knicks can make will offset Miami's inherent advantages, especially following the discouraging knee injury to Shumpert, New York's 6-foot-5 rookie. Midway through the third quarter he had to be carried off the court by two teammates after trying to crossover Mario Chalmers, and the Knicks' hopes of a first-round upset might have vanquished with him.
Shumpert would later be diagnosed with a torn ACL and will require surgery, but in the hour immediately after the game his teammates were still hoping for the best. No one was willing to admit the injury or its impact was as bad as it looked. However, the absence of New York's most athletic guard will incite Miami to attack Baron Davis, Mike Bibby and the defensively inattentive J.R. Smith.
"Our guys had a noticeable look in their eyes the last 24 hours,'' said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. "In the next 48 hours we have to get that look back.''
Yes, this series is going to be a lot of fun for the Knicks.