The difference between the super-functional Heat and the dysfunctional New York Knicks who buffooned to town Thursday night is greater than the obvious answer, which is that one team is led by The Masked Wonder, LeBron James, and the other has problems so great not even Carmelo Anthony’s superhero scoring can mask them.
LeBron returning to action with a facial shield protecting his broken nose was reason enough to declare this Heat Appreciation Night. Every game should be that around here with a back-to-back champion aiming for a three-peat. And what else in Miami sports more than LeBron’s good health is worth toasting?
James, a gift-giver who fosters the team’s sense of team-as-family as much as anyone, gave all of his teammates custom-made WWE-styled championship belts before debuting a mask that looked like a pro wrestling prop they might give the designated villain. The black carbon fiber conveyed a look of comic-book menace, and a million nicknames, parodies and photoshopped pictures bloomed on social media.
James was fitted for two different masks he will wear as a precaution the next few weeks but kidded when asked how many he has.
“About 25,” he said, “if you include my kids’ masks the last nine years from Halloween.”
Best thing about the mask? The man looking through it didn’t seem bothered, seemed himself, gliding to 31 points in Thursday’s 108-82 Miami victory over the Knicks. The Dark Knight’s trusty sidekick, Dwyane Wade, added 23 points. The two future Hall of Famers were a combined 23-for-32 shooting.
For anyone in the arena old enough to have paid homage to the 1950s TV show The Lone Ranger by asking, “Who was that masked man?” the answer is:
The best player in the NBA.
And a man who has accelerated even with Kevin Durant in the MVP race.
In James and Anthony the downtown bayside arena featured the two players who could become the NBA’s most coveted free agents following this season, but the difference in their situations couldn’t be more extreme.
The Heat surround LeBron with every reason to re-sign — with the vintage Wade seen Thursday maybe the best reason of all — while the Knicks’ calamity all around Melo makes him a diamond in a septic tank, a player you’d think couldn’t get out of New York fast enough.
The gaping difference between the extremes of the Heat and the Knicks we’d call the Three C’s:
The Heat has each in abundance. The Knicks are bereft.
New York woes
New York has the most overpaid player in the league in the ghost of Amare Stoudemire and his creaking knees. They have Raymond Felton, who got arrested this week for threatening his girlfriend with a loaded gun. They have, of course, J.R. Smith, too, the sulking comedian who unties opponents’ shoelaces and grabs their headbands when not too busy running afoul of the league’s substance-abuse policy. They have an apparently clueless owner in James Dolan.
They are sinking fast out of the playoff chase.
If this is the grand strategy to convince Anthony to re-sign, better call rewrite.
By contrast, the Heat understands as a franchise what the Knicks do not.
It isn’t just about talent.
It’s about people.
The Heat is eyeing available Caron Butler to sign instead of younger Danny Granger. Why? Because Miami players know and like Butler, while the mouthy Granger had irritated Heat players in past meetings.
Miami had a chance to trade now-seldom-used Udonis Haslem (along with Toney Douglas and a draft pick) to Philadelphia last week for promising young Evan Turner, probably a smart move from both a basketball and financial vantage, but didn’t. Why? Miami was repaying Haslem’s loyalty.
On Sunday, the Heat will host their annual Family Day at the arena, with adoring fans mingling, eating and laughing with appreciative players.
If New York had a Family Day right now, they might want a metal detector there. Not just for Felton. For angry Knicks fans.
Remember how NYK pairing Melo and Stoudemire was supposed to be the Knicks’ answer to the Heat’s star assembling?
It might have been, but for the failure to consider those elusive Three C’s: Character. Chemistry. Culture.
Now he’s the scary part.
The Heat could have become the Knicks, the team that threw a mountain range of money at stars only to see an avalanche ensue.
We cannot fathom that now, with Miami homing in on a third consecutive NBA championship, but we could most of that first season of the Big 3 era in 2010-11, remember?
There were issues all of that season with the two alpha dogs, LeBron and Dwyane Wade, struggling to figure a way to coexist on the court. There were questions whether young coach Erik Spoelstra was up to the challenge.
This thing only worked because the three C’s kicked in.
Wade sacrificed his Miami stature and his ego, stepped back and invited LeBron to be LeBron. Chris Bosh could have groused about being a No. 3 scoring option or being made to play center, but did not. And Spolestra justified Pat Riley’s faith.
The Heat’s run on such positivity and revving basketball IQ, from ownership and Riley to the far end of the bench, that faith comes naturally.
The Knicks have lapsed into such poor decisions, absence of leadership, bad characters and lack of direction that faith in their future is difficult.
Because one team gets it, and the other hasn’t a clue.
It isn’t just the talent.
It’s the people.