The Knicks entered Sunday’s matinee with the Heat feeling confident they could close the 6 1/2 game gap in the Eastern Conference. But judging by their crushing 99-93 loss — a defeat that featured a blown 16-point lead — maybe that was just wishful thinking.
The Heat (43-14) stormed back for its franchise-record 14th-straight win on the strength of LeBron James’s 29 points, as the Knicks showed exactly why they are not yet on Miami’s level, despite leading the season series, 2-1. James also added 11 rebounds, seven assists and three steals to push their lead over the Knicks to 7 1/2 games.
Knicks center Tyson Chandler was disappointed in the way the game unfolded, as he thought the Knicks gift-wrapped the comeback.
“I thought this was a very winnable game,” said Chandler. “I walk out of this building thinking that we let one go.”
The Knicks (35-21) had a lead as large as 16 points in the first half, but the Heat used a 28-18 advantage in the third quarter to claw their way back into the game. Shane Battier gave the Heat their first lead since 30-29 in the second quarter when he drilled his fourth 3-pointer for the 82-81 lead. The game was nip-and-tuck for the remainder of regulation. But ultimately it was Miami’s stingy defense (they allowed just 16 points in the fourth quarter), untimely miscues from the Knicks (two costly J.R. Smith turnovers and a bevy of ill-advised shots) and timely buckets from James and Chris Bosh, which give them the win.
Head coach Mike Woodson was pleased to see a slumping Jason Kidd (14 points on 5-of-7 shooting, including 4-of-5 on 3-pointers) shake his doldrums, but the coach wasn’t in the mood to extol the virtues of moral victories.
“Kidd came out of his shooting slump and made some shots, but we just didn't finish the game,” said Woodson. “We only played one half and you have to play two. … I think we knew what was at stake, we just didn’t close out. But expectations are still high. We’re still ahead in the division. We just need to handle our business and not look over our shoulders [because] we’re in a fight.”
By showing such fight, the Heat showed why they are the defending champions and the class of the conference.
“We got stops and made a couple of baskets when we needed it most,” said James, who had a terrific block of the 7-foot-1 Chandler on a layup attempt in the final moments. “But that’s what you have to do when you’re behind and need a comeback.”
James added the game was just as important to Miami as it was to New York, mostly to show their rival their place in the pecking order.
“We came out with a sense of urgency, especially in the second half. We just continued to fight,” James said. “It’s good to get wins like this, just knowing that we can go out and compete against one of the best teams in the East at a tough venue like the Garden.”
But while the loss should have been demoralizing for a Knicks squad that blew such a lead, they still sounded confident afterward. Perhaps it’s because they still hold the season series advantage and appear to be one of the few bad matchups for the Heat.
“We’ve just got to keep moving on,” said Iman Shumpert. “We had some chances, so we know we’ve got to keep it moving.”
The Knicks can perhaps still take solace in defeat because the Heat’s largest lead was six points, and that didn’t happen until Bosh canned a 15-foot- jumper with 1:06 remaining for the 97-91 lead.
Carmelo Anthony did all he could by scoring a game-high 32 points, but he was suffocated by James in the final minutes of the fourth quarter and conspicuously watched as guys like Kidd and Smith took forced shots.
Bosh in particular took great pride in the win. But while stopping short of saying it was a must-win situation, he acknowledged finally beating the Knicks this season and at the Garden, no less, was a boost in the team’s morale.
“It’s about beating the Knicks,’’ said Bosh, who had 16 points. “Winning streaks come and go. Most importantly, this game meant something because we have a chance to see them again in the postseason, especially late [rounds]. … We don’t want them to have a ton of confidence going forward.
“Of course we’re always confident, but you also have to know you can beat a team. We couldn’t just drop these first three games to them and think everything was OK. We had to know that we can beat them here, too.’’
Dwyane Wade was more defiant about the early success the Knicks had on the Heat, even though Anthony didn’t play in one of New York’s 20-point wins. Wade added that all that matters is postseason performance, although it was nice to win at the Garden.
“Yeah, it was good to get that [revenge],’’ Wade said. “But a couple of teams have beaten us before. Psychologically, we were always fine, because we’ve lost to teams in the regular season and beaten them in the playoffs. … It was just good to get this one because we’ll possibly face them in the playoffs.’’
Follow Knicks beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8.