Star Wars

It was just after the all-star break, when Mike D’Antoni was still filled with optimism and the Knickshad a favorable schedule to prepare for a playoff push. They went into the break with a 102-88 loss to the Heat in Miami, which dropped them a game under .500 at 17-18. The Heat swarmed Jeremy Linwith an obvious intent to completely snuff out whatever remained of Linsanity and after hanging in for most of the game, the Knicks succumbed to the frenetic pace in the fourth quarter.

Standing alone with D’Antoni after the Knicks held their first practice after the break, I mentioned to the coach that I was curious to see how his team would look by the time the Knicks and Heat met one last time in the regular season, on April 15 at The Garden. I suggested that if the championship aspirations D’Antoni and the players talked about in the preseason were to come to fruition, they were going to have to go through Miami.

D’Antoni, who was generally jovial in these conversations, gave me a serious look.

“We can beat that team,” he said sternly.

In a playoff series?

“I’m telling you, we can — no, we WILL — beat that team,” he said again.

D’Antoni didn’t last long enough to be part of it, but we will soon find out if the faith he has in this group — a faith that people close to him said was one of the reasons why he decided to step down before the season was lost — is merited.

Make no mistake about it, despite a season series sweep, which included a 93-85 win at The Garden on April 15, the Miami Heat have a healthy respect for Mike Woodson’s Knicks. They are no longer a disjointed group playing a wide-open offense, as was the case in the first meeting of the season. They are no longer a novelty, which is what surrounded them in the midst of Linsanity in the second game.

They are more like that team in the final meeting, which went punch-for-punch for most of the game until they failed to execute in the fourth quarter (which is supposed to be LeBron’s job).

This will be an entertaining series for many reasons, beginning with the marquee star power on both teams, with only the worldwide icon, Jeremy Lin, absent. My heart wants to believe D’Antoni; it wants to believe the Knicks can reach back into history for yet another playoff upset over the heavily-favored Heat. The fan in me wants to sing Prince with Al Trautwig and Party Like it’s 1999.

But the realist in me has watched the Heat all season. Watched them very, very closely. The road to an NBA championship for the Knicks’ core players will have to go through South Beach. And while Woodson has this team playing as hard as we’ve seen a Knicks team play in over a decade, playing inspiring defense with a resilient attitude and, most importantly, with a pride for the name on the front of that jersey, you have to acknowledge that the Heat have been playing at an impressive level all season long.

Miami has been together for two seasons and had a long playoff run to the NBA Finals last spring. What they lack in depth — and that’s a major weakness — they make up in star power, experience and chemistry. And when it comes to playing at Madison Square Garden, The Three Am-EGO-s want the bright lights of Broadway.

This is the perfect kick start for them, exactly what they’d want to prepare for another long playoff run.

This is why I am picking the Heat to win in 5.

But…

This is not last season’s Knicks going up against the Celtics. That team didn’t have a great deal of collective passion, mainly because the late season trade shook up the roster with very little time left to get re-acclimated. This year’s team, however, is much, much different.

This is a very solid locker room with stars, led by Melo, but supported strongly by the only ring-bearer, Tyson Chandler, who have taken full ownership of the team. Though the schedule was only 66 games as a result of the lockout, this year has felt like three to four seasons in one. There has been enough drama to tear this team apart from the inside. There have been enough injuries to extinguish their spirit. There have been enough bad losses to lose faith.

But none of that ever happened.

Instead, this team just got tighter. What developed is a feeling that they’ve been together for more than just one year. That they’ve endured the embarrassments and the defeats. They’ve been through a few wars. Woodson never allowed a loss to linger, as had happened earlier in the season. The Knicks did not lose consecutive games under Woodson. That’s a trend that can take you a long, long way in the playoffs.

No, this group doesn’t have playoff experience together, but the final month of the season came with playoff-like intensity. And they already have the experience of some high pressure games, such as the showdown in Philadelphia and, of course, the ultimate must-win in Milwaukee.

Sure, the flameout in Cleveland cost them a shot at the sixth spot and facing the Indiana Pacers in the first round, a series that might have made them a favorite. But maybe this team is better with its back against the wall, which it has been all season. Maybe being a favorite doesn’t suit them as well as being the team everyone is counting out. The team that everyone wants to count out.

The team that no one wants to face because they are so damn unpredictable. A team that plays playoff basketball built by gritty defense, a team that has the depth to overcome injuries. That has enough been-there, done-that veterans to not shy away from a moment.

A team that will have almost half the crowd in Miami wearing orange-and-blue, which cancels out home court advantage.

And I will say this: the Heat should win this series in five, but the Knicks can win this series in seven.

Now we see if Mike D’Antoni will be proven right. Now to hope I’m proven wrong.