NEW YORK — The enduring image of the Knicks’ 99-93 loss to the Miami Heat Sunday afternoon was LeBron James stealing a J.R. Smith pass on the perimeter in the game’s final seconds and gliding downcourt for an uncontested dunk.
In the end, it was James, the presumptive NBA MVP, overcoming a third-quarter knee injury and putting up 29 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists to will his team to its 14th straight victory before a capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden.
It wasn’t the Knicks making a statement by moving to 3-0 against Miami this season, and throwing some intrigue into the Eastern Conference playoff situation.
It was James and his cohorts making the statement that they are still the NBA’s top dog, despite any fantasies the Knicks may have to the contrary.
“We don’t compare ourselves to Miami,” Carmelo Anthony said after James held him to eight of his 32 points on 3-of-11 shooting in the second half. “Miami’s Miami. We New York. We’ll see them when we see them again. We’re not thinking about that.”
After an 18-5 start, the Knicks (35-21) once had harbored thoughts of challenging the Heat for the No. 1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference.
But since then they are 17-16 and are now trail the front-running Heat (43-14) by 7 1/2 games in the East.
With 16 more games to go in the brutal month of March, they better focus on keepng pace with Indiana, the team they trail by 1/2 game for the No. 2 seed.
For a half, the Knicks looked like the team that beat Miami twice this season by 20 points each and won at San Antonio.
Anthony was on fire for 24 points on 6-of-8 shooting in the first half, and Jason Kidd looked reborn in putting up 12 points on 4-of-5 from the arc. The Knicks led 59-45 at the break.
But just as quickly, the Knicks’ offense fell apart in the second half. Kidd managed just two points after the break. J.R. Smith, who is ostensibly the second banana to Anthony, suffered through a woeful 5-of-18 shooting performance, including 3-of-14 from deep.
“I’m extremely disappointed,” Smith said. “We played well for the whole game. The turnovers killed us, my three especially…We just have to move on to the next one.”
Knicks coach Mike Woodson called out Smith after the game, and justifiably so.
“He has to mix it up,” Woodson said. “That is something he and I will talk about. When you are not making your threes you have to get something close or get to the free-throw line. He is learning how to be a good scorer but we have to help him.”
With Smith, Kidd and Steve Novak (0-for-3, 0 points) struggling from deep, and Woodson limiting Amar’e Stoudemire to 21 minutes because he wanted to go small, James suffocated Anthony in the second half despite going down with what could’ve been a serious knee injury at the 6:04 make of the third when he tried to corral a Dwayne Wade alley oop.
“I was concerned but I had a doctor look at it,” James said. “I will be alright. It might be a little worse the next day. Hopefully, I believe, I will be in the lineup tomorrow.”
Anthony had his own knee and rib injuries to deal with.
He went to the locker room late in the first half to get treatment.
“I came back ,got some treatement at halftime,” Anthony said. “Ice and stim. More by knee than my arm.
“I’m fine, I’m fine, though.”
Mostly, though, it was James outplaying his Olympic teammate and friend in the second half, shutting him down defensively and taking over for 19 of his team-high 29 points on 8-of-13 shooting.
“He is a great player,” James said of Anthony. “You try to make it tough for him. You have to contest and live with the result.”
While James has two legitimate stars next to him in Wade and Chris Bosh — the trio combined for 65 points — Anthony doesn’t have that.
He has Smith, who is probably given more freedom than he deserves, Stoudemire, who may never be the player he was, and Tyson Chandler, who will never be confused with an offensive force.
“As far as his shooting percentage or just him as a player, what he’s able to do out there on the court, he’s playing at a very high level right now,” Anthony said of James. “Miami’s playing at a very high level.
“When you have the big three playing the way they playing, especially right now, it makes it tough for a lot of of people. You never know where it’s going to come from.”
The Knicks had a chance to make a statement on a national stage.
For one half, they did.
But not for two.
And now Anthony is right. The Knicks can’t compare themselves to Miami.
They have their own issues to deal with.
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Photo: NY Post