The Knicks and Nets fashioned themselves as legitimate threats to end the Heat’s three-season run of Eastern Conference championships.
Instead, the teams with the NBA’s two highest payrolls languish well below .500 but remain very much in playoff contention in a conference where only the Heat and Indiana Pacers have distanced themselves from the pack.
“Both teams have struggled,” Heat center Chris Bosh said, with Miami set to play the Knicks on Thursday at Madison Square Garden and the Nets on Friday in Brooklyn. “They’re still trying to find themselves. Recently, they’ve been playing better basketball. We kind of figured that was going to happen before we go in there, that they weren’t going to be the same team that they’ve been the past couple of weeks. We just have to be ready to play a tough game both nights.”
The Knicks (12-22) have won three of their past four, including victories in San Antonio and Dallas, but are just 5-12 at home.
“I understand the Knicks are playing much better than they were, especially on that Texas road trip,” LeBron James said. “They won [Tuesday] as well” against Detroit.
The Knicks are 25th in the league in scoring and 27th in rebound differential, with injuries contributing to both. Center Tyson Chandler has missed 21 games, guard Raymond Felton 16 and forward Metta World Peace is now sidelined with a knee injury. Felton is shooting just 39.5 percent and J.R. Smith just 34.8 percent.
Forward Amare Stoudemire, the NBA’s fourth highest-paid player at $21.7 million, has produced modestly (8.9 points, 4.0 rebounds) while playing just 19 minutes per game.
Forward Carmelo Anthony, averaging 26.3 points, is set to become a free agent in the summer and might explore leaving. Anthony told New York reporters on Tuesday night that he didn’t even know the Heat was next on the Knicks’ schedule until a reporter pointed it out to him. “We gotta face ’em,” he said. “We can’t run from them.”
The Nets, meanwhile, have stumbled badly after acquiring Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko during the offseason and pushing their payroll to $101 million, $14 million more than the Knicks.
Garnett is averaging just 6.3 points on 36 percent shooting, and Pierce 12.8 on 39.8 percent accuracy. Guard Joe Johnson, who is earning more than any Heat player this season at $21.4 million, is shooting just 43 percent and averaging 15.2 points.
Even more problematic: Center Brook Lopez played in just 17 games before sustaining a season-ending foot injury. Point guard Deron Williams has missed 12 games with an ankle injury, and The New York Post said he likely will miss Friday’s Heat game.
“I’ve never been on a team or seen a team go through all the injuries we’ve gone through,” said first-year coach Jason Kidd, whose team is allowing opponents to shoot an NBA-high 39.2 percent on three-pointers.
Frustrations boiled over two weeks ago, when Kidd blasted the Nets for being comfortable with losing. Garnett added, at the time: “I don’t think we have an identity. I don’t know who we are.”
The Nets have played better recently, including a few games with Pierce playing power forward. They entered Wednesday’s game against Golden State having won three in a row, against Oklahoma City, Cleveland and Atlanta.
“They put together a team with championship aspirations very quickly,” Bosh said. “We know how tough that is, to have that kind of expectation. It’s hard. J-Kidd in his first year as coach. They’ve had injuries. It’s been a tough year for them.”
With the Nets and Knicks just 3 1/2 and 4 1/2 games behind Atlantic Division-leading Toronto, it wouldn’t be surprising to see either win the division, despite their struggles.
“It was a little surprising early on that they struggled as much as they did,” Dwyane Wade said. “Of late, they’ve got some good wins and they’re really trying to find themselves. It’s the right time for them to really get it together because we come to town.”
“They are developing nice chemistry,” coach Erik Spoelstra said.