The first time the Knicks played the Heat, they managed to equip themselves well for a half before folding. On Tuesday night, they put together three-quarters of a good effort. That feels like progress.
Of course, the quarter that found them flat was the first quarter and it ended with the Heat up by 16 points. That lead bulged to as many as 22 in the second quarter before the Knicks finally woke up and joined the fight. They'd close within three and made the Heat sweat more than they're used to perspiring, but, ultimately, the effort fell short and the Knicks lost 104-98.
The biggest reason why they lost was Dwyane Wade. He dropped 40 on a variety of defenders, including a three out of a timeout just after the Knicks closed the game to 97-94 in the fourth quarter. Every time the Knicks found a way to nudge their way close to the Heat, it seemed Wade would step up and make a play that kept the lead just where the home team wanted it to stay. His presence and play made it hard to ever fully buy into the Knicks comeback.
It was hardly the only reason. The Knicks hit the defensive glass with all the passion of a couple that's been married for 13 years, which gave the Heat numerous chances to make up for an offense that was often thwarted by decent Knicks defense. There are those that will point to Tuesday night's game as a sign that no Carmelo Anthony will mean no leaps forward for the Knicks in the near future. With or without Anthony, that leap isn't happening until the Knicks get better on the interior in their own end.
Other things hurt. Landry Fields missed two-of-three free throws just after that Wade three, essentially sealing his team's fate. It was a rare bad night overall for the impressive rookie, and it wasn't a particularly good night for Raymond Felton either. The Heat did a good job of stopping the Knicks from doing what they wanted to do on offense -- not much happened in seven seconds or less -- and some ugly chucks from three in the early going helped the Heat build their lead.
Still, there were reasons to feel okay about the Knicks on Tuesday night. They lost by eight to the Heat on a night when they did not play particularly well and they kept making runs every time Wade turned them back. Those are signs of a team that believes in itself, but isn't yet at an elite level. That description fits the Knicks pretty well, although we're getting close to the point that simply fighting hard in a loss to the good teams isn't enough to make everything okay.
And that, dear friends, is the best thing of all about this Knicks team.