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On the Eve of the 2012 Playoffs: The Stage Is Set for Knicks-Heat Series

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Here we are again, on the eve of the playoffs and with our New York Knicks set to begin the true test of their season: playing LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Like last year's first round series with the Celtics, hopes are high in New York -- despite the fact that every major analyst has told us we aren't going to make it pass the first round, we believe.

And if we do manage to beat the Miami Heat, the bigger story will be about LeBron James: a first-round exit for Miami would be LeBron's failure, not the Heat's, and it will be the Knicks' good fortune that they caught LeBron at the point of his career where he has everything to prove and everything to lose. None of this will be fair, of course, to LeBron or the Knicks, and even if Miami prevails, as everyone says they will, it will be teammate Dwyane Wade's victory -- LeBron won't be celebrated until he wins a championship and even then, he'll be ridiculed for not winning one sooner.

For Knicks fans, the ramifications of an early exit in the 2012 playoffs could also be resounding. For all intents and purposes, this may be the last time we watch the superstar duo that's been questioned even more than it's been hyped, the duo of forwards Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire. Because when the Knicks controversially traded away nearly all of their young talent for Anthony at the trade deadline last season, it was a move that was expected to do one thing -- make the New York Knicks a championship contender. When the Knicks were swept by Boston in the first round of last year's playoffs, most of us were still not ready to give up on Anthony and Stoudemire; with an off-season to rest and a full 2012 season to gel, it was still possible that the Knicks would become the good team they were supposed to be.

Then, after a flurry of roster moves (most of them stellar on paper), the Knicks began the lockout-shortened season 18 - 24. Coach Mike D'Antoni was fired, Mike Woodson took over and the Knicks miraculously went on to win 18 of their last 24 games. Despite a worrisome back injury to Stoudemire, causing him to miss 13 of those games, the doubted duo won 8 of the 10 games they played together under Mike Woodson, who has reinvigorated a team that had looked like a goner under D'Antoni.

Supporters of the Anthony-Stoudemire tandem, however, remain few and far between. Neither player will admit that there is any rift between the two, but it has been easy to see, and uncomfortable to watch, as the two of them have tried awkwardly to mesh. It hasn't helped, of course, that the Knicks looked their best in those 13 games when Stoudemire was off the court and healing, and when Anthony, who is widely considered one of the best scorers in the NBA, became an overnight hero in New York, scoring at will and even playing hard-nose, Mike Woodson-style defense, something Stoudemire will also have to do come Saturday.

If before fans had doubted Anthony -- calling him selfish and lazy; my girlfriend calls him cosmetic -- now they are doubting Stoudemire, the once loveable centerpiece of a pre-Anthony Knicks team on the rebound, suddenly a fading star, hobbled by injuries and, quite possibly, on his way out of New York. That is, if the Knicks lose.

Because if a Knicks team led by Anthony and supported by Stoudemire can build on their developing chemistry under Woodson and manage to beat the Miami Heat, the talk may focus on LeBron -- or "LeBrick" as he's affectionately called -- but the true story would be the New York Knick engine-that-could. New Yorkers finally have a team that is playing like a contender, and New Yorkers want this team to prove everybody wrong. We're not ready to give up just yet on Stoudemire, who really is as likable as they get and only 29 years old, or Anthony, who has become the fiery leader we always wanted him to be. So get ready for the playoffs, Miami, this one's going to count.

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