NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at New York Knicks

Difference Maker: The Knicks’ Bench

Karma could be on the side of the Knicks, since the last time that they played the Heat in the first-round they went onto play the Spurs in the Finals. In addition, during that 1999 season, the NBA also had a lockout shortened campaign, that saw the team hurt by the injury to Patrick Ewing.

This season, Carmelo Anthony, Baron Davis, Amar’e Stoudemire and Jared Jeffries missed games because of injuries, Melo and Stoudemire initially had trouble playing together, Jeremy Lin helped the team go 10-3 during a 13 game stretch in February, followed by seven consecutive losses once Melo came back from injury, but they finished 18-6 under interim coach Mike Woodson.

Just like how this year’s team finished strong, the team that went to the Finals in ’99 won six of their last eight games to go into the playoffs with momentum, which is always important.

Woodson got Melo to play like a star again, held players accountable, established JR Smith as a weapon off of the bench, made playing defense a priority and got the bench to play an important role in the team’s success.

The bench can help the Knicks defeat the Heat if the starters can prevent LeBron James and Dewayne Wade from dominating them like they have this season. Tyson Chandler, who should win the Defensive Player Of The Year award, has been pivotal in the team’s defensive resurgence. as he will play a crucial role in the series helping to alter the drives to the basket by James, Wade and Chalmers.

The Knicks faced the Heat three times this season losing by 10, 14 and eight points. For the most part, the Knicks were able to stay with Miami for the first three quarters before fading in the fourth. However, the Knicks were a different team each time that they played the Heat and now the players on the team have their roles clearly defined.

The bench is a key reason that the Knicks have a chance to defeat the Heat like they did in ’99. This is because Landry Fields, Steve Novak, JR Smith, Mike Bibby and possible Jared Jeffries will be able to significantly contribute off of the bench.

Bibby has played extensive minutes while Lin has been out with his injury and he will be able to be a reliable point guard with playoff experience off of the bench (depending on the size of Woodson’s rotation). Bibby is not what he once was, but he can make the open jumper and make the right pass without committing turnovers. He is the right complement to Baron Davis, since Davis can be too flashy at times.

The Heat don’t really have a true back-up point guard after Mario Chalmers, so the Knicks by default have the edge in that category. LeBron James and Wade handle the ball so much that they don’t really need one. Norris Cole served as the back-up early on, but he has not played as much recently.

JR Smith, who has been playing much better under Woodson – who has gotten Smith to improve his shot selection – was able to score 21 points, on 7-23 from the field, and pass for five assists in the critical win over the Clippers. He can either shoot the team out of the game when he is cold, or give the team a much needed scoring boost, and he has been scoring at will as of late. Over the last two weeks, Smith has been the second most reliable player, after Anthony, when the Knicks need scoring.

The Heat’s best scorer off of the bench is Mike Miller who averaged 6.1 points this season, which is about seven points below his career average. However, he has not proven that he will be able to get back to that level, which gives the Knicks the edge in that category as well.

Steve Novak, who was the best 3-point shooter in the NBA this season, will be critical when the Knicks need to comeback from a deficit or build a lead. He is almost automatic when he is open from long distance and Stat, Melo, Smith, and Davis are usually able to find him when he is ready to shoot.

Mike Miller was the best shooter from long range for the Heat, shooting 45 percent from long distance, but he only played in 39 games. James Jones, who has been known mostly as a 3-point shooter throughout his career, shot 40 percent from long range this year. The Knicks have the slight edge here as well, since Novak made 47 percent of his attempts and has the green light whenever he has any opening.

The other weapon off the bench will be Landry Fields, since Shumpert has moved into the starting lineup. Fields has not shot the ball as well as he did last season, but that has not prevented him from helping in other areas, as he averaged 4.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.2 steals a game.

Fields did show increased efficiency on the offensive end during the last few games. A key aspect of his offensive game is that he can go to the hoop and finish with either hand. He should utilize this in the playoffs to catch the Heat off guard since they will not really be looking for him to score.

Fields will be a valuable because he is a player coming off the bench who has started most of his career. Jeffries will also have an important role because he will be able to be brought in for his defense on Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem, as well as his impressive rate of drawing the offensive foul.

Woodson could call on Dan Gadzuric in game one because Chandler might not play, due to a flu. Gadzuric will be able to rebound the ball, play defense, and be an extra body to foul Wade and James, if needed.

The Heat are star-studded. Lebron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh are all extremely talented players, but the reason I’m giving the Knicks a fighting chance is because they possess a much more talented bench. The Knicks have about 9 guys that can contrbute, while the Heat get really thin outside of the big three.

Look for the Knicks’ bench to contribute to a series upset!