It is often said that veteran basketball teams tend to coast through the regular season. That sentiment was certainly expressed often about the Miami Heat as they sat players and tried to best navigate through a lockout-condensed schedule.
However, in one instant during their first playoff game Saturday against the New York Knicks, playoff intensity came flowing into the American Airlines Arena. After an already chippy first period, Tyson Chandler was issued a flagrant foul at the 1:34 mark in the second quarter for an open court elbow thrown into the back of LeBron James while setting a screen.
Motivated by the shot that sent him to the floor, James ended the half with nine straight points and the Heat never looked back, winning a 100-67 blowout. James finished with game high 32 points and sat out the entirety of the fourth quarter.
“I felt the emotion from our fans,” said James about the aftermath of the Chandler flagrant “Our fans are great. They didn’t like the play. I fed off of those guys and I fed off my teammates. It was great to see us bounce back from that and stretch the lead out going into halftime.”
That one play by Chandler highlighted a day full of miscues for the Knicks, who set a new franchise playoff record for fewest points scored. Overall, they committed 26 personal fouls and Miami took advantage, going 24-33 from the line.
Even more debilitating to New York’s hopes were the 24 turnovers that were created by a stifling Heat defense. The 38 points notched off of those takeaways was a franchise postseason high.
“That’s always been our identity this year,” said Spoelstra on the defensive pressure. “Teams like this make it very tough. When you have three point shooters and multiple guys who can put the ball on the floor and break your defense down. We were able to be aggressive enough to close the gaps.”
Even prior to the Chandler-James incident, there were early signs from Miami that the sleepwalking evident at times in the regular season would be nonexistent in the playoffs.
The Heat was aggressive in going to the basket and converted near the rim. In his pregame media availability, Spoelstra stressed that he needed to see his squad attacking.
“That is the intention of our identity,” said Spoelstra postgame. “It takes a great commitment to play at that energy level, with that type of focus, activity, and toughness. Now, there shouldn’t be any excuse. We have enough rest time in between games and enough time to emotionally prepare yourself for that type of commitment.”
In addition to James, Dwyane Wade helped lead that aggressive push, with the duo scoring 18 of the team’s 24 points in the first quarter. Wade ended with 19 points while Chris Bosh had a quiet afternoon with nine points and six rebounds.
Despite the negatives, there was a time when things looked more in reach for the Knicks. In the second quarter, they cut the lead to one, but a 24-2 Heat run started by a pair of Bosh free throws and ended by the aforementioned array of James baskets quelled any notion of a close contest.
New York shot just 38.9 percent in the second half and while J.R. Smith had 17 points off the bench, Carmelo Anthony was just 3-15 from the field and finished with ten.
“He’s a great player,” said James on Anthony. “We just try to make it tough on him. Now that he knows that we are fronting him, we may have something different for game two. Our strategy and system worked for game one, but he’s a great player and he’s going to make adjustments.”
Now, the Knicks will get a day off to make adjustments in advance of game two Monday back in Miami. They may be forced to prepare without rookie Iman Shumpert who was carried off the floor with a left knee injury in the third quarter.
Regardless of who is in uniform, the Heat knows they will need to bring the same mentality that got them a 1-0 series lead.
“We understand that is an extremely dangerous team,” said Spoelstra. “That is the thing about a long series. Whatever happens, you have to be emotional capable and strong enough now to put it to the side. We’ve got 48 hours and it is our responsibility we have that same look coming into game two.”
Erik Spoelstra Postgame Video
LeBron James Postgame Video