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LeBron James, Dwyane Wade lavish praise on Knicks

LeBron James talks with Dwyane Wade during the

LeBron James talks with Dwyane Wade during the first half of a game against the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center. (Dec. 4, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty

MIAMI -- The game lost some of its luster when Carmelo Anthony had to back out with a finger injury, but the Knicks definitely had the Miami Heat's attention heading into Thursday night's meeting.

The defending champs gave the Knicks, who haven't won a playoff series since 2000, the ultimate respect, and it wasn't because they beat Miami by 20 on opening night. The Heat's star players, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, sounded as if they expect the Knicks to challenge them all season.

"In the Eastern Conference, you would have to look up and say they're the measuring stick right now, and they would say the same about us," Wade said at the morning shootaround.

Of course, the Heat thought Anthony was playing when those nice things were said. He sat out with a left middle finger laceration suffered in Wednesday's win in Charlotte.

The Knicks do measure themselves against the Heat, the team that knocked them out of the postseason in the first round last season. Coach Mike Woodson repeatedly has said the Knicks "are trying to get to where the Heat were a year ago."

Through the first six weeks of the season, the Knicks have played like a legitimate contender. They entered Thursday night with a 13-4 record, tops in the East and fourth best in the NBA.

Ultimately, the Knicks will be measured by what they do in the postseason. But Wade said that even though the Heat beat the Knicks seven out of eight times last season, including the playoffs, he could see they were closing the gap.

"They were building something," Wade said. "You know they were building something. They built a good team. We enjoy it. This is great. This is great for the game of basketball that the New York Knicks are back to being a good team.''

Wade also said it has renewed the heated rivalry the Knicks and Miami had when Pat Riley stormed the Heat sideline and Patrick Ewing manned the middle for New York.

It's doubtful it ever would get that intense because players are friendlier with each other now, as indicated by Anthony and James being close buddies. But Tyson Chandler is a fierce competitor who says the opponent is his enemy and the Knicks have Rasheed Wallace. So anything is possible.

James didn't want to give the Knicks much credit before they met in November, but he acknowledged that they've become tougher, smarter and harder to defend.

"They're a more experienced team," James said. "They're more dangerous. They added a key piece in Jason Kidd. His basketball IQ is pretty much one of the highest that we have in this league. It kind of trickles down to everyone else."

As the NBA champion, the Heat remains the team to beat. But the Knicks-Heat games have gotten much more interesting recently. They will meet two more times in the regular season, and those should be even more compelling.

They play at the Garden March 3 and in Miami on April 2. Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert will be back long before then, and those two games could be important in the race for the conference's best record.

"We're two good teams trying to make our mark in the Eastern Conference, trying to prove we're both the best in the Eastern Conference," Wade said. "We both feel we can beat each other. They've done an unbelievable job of putting together a good team, and we have as well. This is what you play for."

New York Sports