Raymond Felton of the Knicks, here shooting over Joe Anthony of the Heat Thursday, is the prototypical player coach Mike Woodson excels with on the floor. (Alan Diaz/Associated Press)
NBA championships aren't won in December but seeds for May and June are often planted before Christmas.
Messages are sent and absorbed, confidence is built and reinforced while a competitive fear is installed, inscribed with the words: "We can beat you".
The New York Knicks' second straight 20-point thrashing of the NBA-champion Miami Heat sent shockwaves through the league Thursday night. It was done without superstar Carmelo Anthony, who was out with a hand injury, and the Knicks already have Amare Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert on the sidelines, recovering from knee injuries.
Anthony could've played, even with the stitches in his finger but a subtle message was sent, in his mere absence. Thursday was a statement game, per se, but the Knicks and Anthony, in deciding he wasn't going to play said they weren't jeopardizing anything for one night.
Then the Knicks went out and destroyed the champs, systematically, unceremoniously, and did it in such a way that you could see this happening in a seven-game series — or at least the Knicks being able to push the Heat to the brink of playoff elimination.
Also, it's time to give Knicks coach Mike Woodson the lion's share of credit, too. For whatever reason, Pistons ownership preferred Lawrence Frank over Woodson and the former Hawks coach found himself in the Big Apple, as the lead assistant to Mike D'Antoni before inheriting the job when D'Antoni bolted last season.
Now the Knicks have vets in the locker room and on the floor, calming influences on the sidelines who are in lockstep with stars and role players alike, sharing a common goal. After years of being pretenders —having not made it to the second round in over a decade — they look ready to ascend, although they'll face their own challenges from the likes of the still-formidable Boston Celtics and the improved Brooklyn Nets.
Woodson's influence is all over this team — and whatever concerns anyone had about him from his days in Atlanta — when he helped build a young team to the precipice of the elite, should be long gone.
He leads men; men follow. It's a simple proposition, easy to say but tough to enforce. Woodson obviously has the respect, attention and command of a very disparate locker room — united by a desperation to prove itself worthy of championship conversation.
Carmelo Anthony has never been too inclined to play defense but Woodson has him, at the very least, trying. J.R. Smith has been termed a player nobody can win with, but Woodson has him playing under control and within the framework of a team.
Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton, Rasheed Wallace and Ronnie Brewer are all players in the Woodson mold — players the Knicks wouldn't have if D'Antoni was still running things, because as we see with D'Antoni in Los Angeles, if he can't find a way to integrate Pau Gasol into his system, he'd have no use for those four.
At the beginning of the season, a scout said the Knicks would make it to the brink of June — with a six-game loss at the hands of the Heat in the conference finals.
"Jason Kidd, forget the numbers, he has the best feel for a game than anyone," the scout said. "He knows who hasn't gotten shots, who needs attention and he'll keep Melo from becoming frustrated. He's the glue."
Heat is on
A year ago, Jeremy Lin could barely get the ball upcourt against the Heat in a Thursday night game on TNT before the All-Star break. This time around, Felton dominated the Heat, hitting six 3-pointers and shrugging off an unfocused Heat defense to control the game despite LeBron James' triple-double.
While it's true the Heat look like they're cruising through the regular season, trying to find their way while playing a different style than the one that won them a championship this past June, it's important to note the Knicks have the personnel to challenge them.
Dwyane Wade's health is a real concern. You wonder where his knee and aching body will be five months from now, when there's more wear and tear on his frame, when you start playing the same team every other day for two weeks.
The Heat aren't as big up front as the Knicks and certainly don't appear as tough in that department, either. Potentially the Heat have the two best players, the championship know-how and presumably home-court advantage should the two combatants meet.
But thanks to Woodson, a newfound focus and reliance on some old, grizzled vets — the Knicks have a chance, which is all you can ask for.