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The Heat Throttle The Knicks, And It's All About Defense

LeBron James and the Heat ended the Knicks season in Game 5 Wednesday, and just like the rest of series, it all started on defense. But it won't always be that simple.

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On some level, the Heat-Knicks series was always going to be about Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. They were the two biggest stars on the court, and it was billed as a showdown from the beginning. And from the beginning, it was never really close.

Carmelo's very good, but LeBron's great. The difference is defense. And ultimately that matchup became microcosm for the Heat and Knicks, in general. The Knicks have plenty of excuses -- injuries to Jeremy Lin, Amar'e, Tyson Chandler, Iman Shumpert, Baron Davis -- but they lost in five games was because they just couldn't score.

The Heat struggled all year defending the three, and that was the Knicks' biggest offensive strength. But the past two weeks Miami tightened the screws. You can go right down the line. J.R. Smith went 5-24 from three over five games. Carmelo was 4-18. Steve Novak went 4-7 in five games, but as ESPN's Tom Haberstroh notes, after averaging 10 three-point attempts per 36 minutes during the regular season, that number fell to 1.5 in the playoffs. It's not a coincidence.

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Miami closed out on New York's shooters all series long, giving them no space to operate and no choice but to fire up desperate shots. In turn, it gave everyone a reminder of why this team can be so dangerous come playoff time. No team in the league has the length and speed that Miami brings on defense. They may be weak on the inside, but they pressure teams so well that half the time it doesn't even matter. And nobody personifies this better than the NBA MVP.

LeBron was fantastic on offense all series long, but it was on defense where he set himself apart. He locked down Carmelo Anthony in key moments, and where Miami could do pretty much whatever they wanted to the Knicks on the other end, New York's buckets all felt like small miracles. There was a moment Wednesday night where the Knicks were down 16, the shot clock was winding down, and Carmelo Anthony had to take a turnaround jumper from about 20 feet out.

That one went in, but most of the others didn't.

All of which is to say that when you're forcing teams into desperate fadeaway jumpers just to stay alive, they won't be alive for long. Melo shot 52-124 (.419) for the series, the Knicks three-point specialists (Smith, Novak) were neutralized, and that's how the Heat moved on. Crunch time offense doesn't matter if your team's up double digits the whole game.

It might have been a closer series if Iman Shumpert had stayed healthy and the Knicks had defensive answers of their own, but without Shumpert, the Knicks had no chance.

After an uneven finish to the regular season we came into the playoffs asking all sorts of questions about Miami and the role players and the coaching and whether it could all work this year. We asked the same questions last year. The Heat answered them then, and answered them against the Knicks. And both times they answered with defense.

If they can lock teams down, role players won't matter as much on offense, because their stars will get all the easy buckets that Miami doesn't give up on the other end. It's the same way the '90s Bulls won six championships. It won't always be this simple, though.

And that's where it gets fun.

The Heat had three tough playoff series last year: the Celtics, Bulls and Mavericks. In each case, the team they played was every bit as tough on defense as Miami. Against the Celtics and Bulls, every game was a battle, and all the great defense canceled itself out. Winning came down to which team's superstars could make the plays in the final minutes. LeBron and Wade came through big time against Chicago and Boston, and Miami went to the Finals. In the Finals, the Mavs were every bit as good as Miami on defense, and we all know how that ended.

So, as great as LeBron was the past two weeks, Miami will need him that much more when they face a team that can match them defensively. The Bulls are hanging on for dear life against the Sixers, but the Celtics are looming with a healthy Rajon Rondo, and it's too early to guess who might come out of the West. (The Pacers were 7th in shooting defense, so the next round could be more interesting than you think.)

For now, we know this much: great defense is a pre-requisite for any elite team, and it's what made the difference against New York. The Heat play championship defense as well as anyone in the NBA. But when two great defensive teams face off and games get decided between one or two possesions, it's LeBron and Wade who will have to win games for them.

It's a new year, and this series proved loud and clear that Miami's still great enough on defense to contend with anyone. Now, we get to see if LeBron and Wade can actually win this time.