featured-image

HEAT vs. Knicks Preview: Fresh Off An Unbelievable Upset, The HEAT Draw A Knicks Team That Presents A Very Different Kind Of Challenge Despite One Very Familiar Look

The first thing the HEAT need to do is toss out everything that just happened. All that crazy, zany, incredible, ludicrous, improbable and remarkable stuff is about to be tossed out with last week’s emails.  They just pulled off one of the greatest upsets in NBA history. It’s an achievement that will never fade, tarnish. It’s also a memory now. Past tense.

It’s 0-0 all over again, and they have a chance to make what they did in the First Round all the more special by keeping this run going.

Those of you looking for a history lesson on the history of HEAT-Knicks can, respectfully, look elsewhere. Outside of the staff members on either side who were around for those battles in the late 90’s, and of course for the fans, what happened then has zero relevance to now. The style of basketball played back then may as well have been an entirely different sport. The 2012 meeting, irrelevant as soon as it was over, has long since been forgotten.

What we have in front of us are two fairly evenly matched teams whose games were decided by two, two, seven and nine points this season.

The last series will inform this one in some ways. Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, like the rest of the league, just watched Jimmy Butler run rampant through Milwaukee’s elite, statistically, defense. He also just watched Miami put up maybe the best five-game stretch of shooting in NBA postseason history – six players took at least three threes a game and shot 40 percent, not counting the brief minutes of Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo who both made at least 40 percent of their threes, and at 35.7 percent Kyle Lowry still shot better than Miami did as a team during the regular season.

If you’re preparing for the HEAT right now, you can either treat them like the regular season edition, where the shooting wasn’t often there while Butler had the most efficient season of his career, or you can treat them like the First Round version where Butler had maybe the most efficient series of any one player ever – 67.1 percent true shooting on 35.3 percent usage, 37.6 points a night – while Miami shot like they didn’t understand the concept of missing.

If you’re preparing for the HEAT right now, you have to ask yourself what is real and what do you have to prioritize taking away.

Milwaukee tried to take away the threes while trusting their individual defenders, and rim protection, to limit Butler as much as possible. They succeeded in one respect. After taking 35.7 three per 100 possessions, Miami attempted just 32.8 in the five-game series. Not much of a gain, but considering the HEAT also took 22.4 percent of their shots in the restricted area, down from 28.4 in the regular season, you can say Milwaukee’s scheme was working as intended from a shot profile perspective.

Whether the Bucks should have adjusted as Miami continued to blow up the probabilities is a question for another day. What’s important is that New York plays defense in a very similar manner to Milwaukee from a top-down perspective, but in the details their scheme often looks like a team that has already planned for what Miami does so well.

Redundant though it felt to keep bringing up Milwaukee’s drop coverage over the course of that series, there wasn’t much else that could compare to it in a strategic sense. Even if they weren’t getting to the rim, Miami’s ballhandlers – limited as they have become in quantity without Herro and Oladipo – knew they could almost always get a clean look by coming off a simple screen. Gabe Vincent knew that as he took 23 shots in the closeout Game 5. That look was almost always a jumper, but an open jumper off the dribble is often the best you’re going to do in a playoff game anyways. Better to know what you can get rather than spend 20 seconds of a possession looking for the same chance. Part of the reason those shots were almost always there is because the Bucks weren’t sending much help into the middle of the floor on those pick-and-rolls. They played two-on-two coverage as much as possible, and they stayed home on shooters.

According to Second Spectrum’s tracking data, the only team in the league that played more drop coverage than Milwaukee this season is, you guessed it, New York. The Knicks just did things a little differently.

First, take this possession of Milwaukee defense.

Knicks Preview: Bucks No Help

Now, consider this one.

Knicks Preview: NY Nail Help High Drop

Notice the difference? Here are two freeze frames side by side.

There are two things that jump out. The first is that Mitchell Robinson is much higher up on the floor, much closer to the initial screen, than Brook Lopez. Robinson is still in drop coverage as it is defined, but he’s a much more active participant in the action, close enough to apply his size into the driving lane of the ballhandler before literally dropping back into the paint. Lopez, in a sense, doesn’t drop at all. He would often stay where he is, waiting to catch the ball as it inches towards him and the rim. The data backs this up, too. New York ran the second most drop coverage with the big defender ‘up to touch’ on the ball this season. Under that definition, Milwaukee’s usage ranking falls all the way down to No. 22. The same coverage played at two completely different depths.

The second key piece is that third defender helping over to the nail (in the middle of the free-throw line). It’s tougher to get a clean look off if there’s another defender creeping into your airspace. It’s also tougher to probe into the paint if a swiping hand is making you pick up your dribble. Miami can make the life of the ballhandler easier, as they often do, by running their screens along the sideline with an empty strong-side corner, but even then the shape of the play is often merely flipped – the third defender is now disrupting the pocket pass instead of the ballhandler. Even the spacing of Kevin Love, so crucial in disrupting Milwaukee’s possession-to-possession defensive rhythm, won’t drag defenders around in the same way unless he’s at center – a counter for which, zone, the Knicks used even less than the Bucks, just two possessions all year.

“They can be in a full drop but they also can trap on pick-and-roll, they also can do that mid catch-blitz a little bit like what Denver does,” Erik Spoelstra said. “They bring over a third defender a lot of times. They’re great at protecting the paint, the rim, attacks, all that stuff. That’s been a full season of habits they’ve built. They’re not going to just glitch and give an easy basket. You have to really work your offense. You have to be detailed. You have to do things with pace and utilize all the different kind of weapons in your menu. You can’t just keep on going to the same thing over and over.”

Miami essentially does the same thing. They shrink the floor. That’s a large part of how they allowed the fourth-lowest frequency of rim attempts despite not playing a ton of size or rim protection. New York allows a bit closer to an average rim diet – compensating for that by defending shots at the rim remarkably well, led by Robinson’s deterrence in the paint – but like the HEAT they also have to pay the price for helping middle, the same price Milwaukee was so unwilling to pony up for. The more you help, the fewer players you have attached to shooters.

The Knicks allowed the fifth-highest frequency of three-point attempts in the league. Miami allowed the second highest. Beginning with Quentin Grimes – who attempted 10 threes apiece in two of the matchups against Miami, going 11-of-20 – both teams have plenty of willing shooters to capitalize on either side’s chosen schemes from the perimeter.

New York isn’t going to concede as much real estate when Miami’s remaining ballhandlers come off screens, nor are they going to offer wide pockets of lateral space to operate in. The Knicks very rarely switch – they would typically rather put two on the ball off a pick rather than concede a poor matchup – so the HEAT don’t need to worry too much about being flattened out in that specific way. They’re just going to have to be creative with their approach if they want the paint touches that produce the best threes, not just taking the first three they get off a swing pass.

“We don’t need a high volume,” Spoelstra said. “We don’t need to shoot 55 threes a game, but there is that symbiotic relationship between our spacing and our attacking and making sure we’re getting a good balance of both.”

Small sample, but it should be noted that both teams shot at least 39 percent from three against one another.

Another major change from the previous series is that the Knicks likely won’t allow Butler to take nearly 24 shots a game. That might be a good thing since Butler was carrying a gargantuan offensive load that would be difficult for anyone to continue to bear, but the reality is that Milwaukee’s strict adherence to their own philosophy and systems – and all that trust in their own personnel – meant Butler repeatedly enjoyed single coverage on his attacks. Butler produced a staggering 1.34 points-per-isolation, including assist opportunities, across 42 possessions in five games. If you take out the nine potential assists from that equation, Butler’s pure-usage isolations (shot, foul or turnover) produced 1.48 points per possession. He never once saw a double team.

That’s not going to be the case against New York. Regardless of who the primary matchup is – expect a lot of Josh Hart and Quentin Grimes, with a hearty side of RJ Barrett in once of the few matchups where they might switch – they’re more than willing to send double teams, particularly late in the shot clock. Even if it’s not to the degree that Dallas did earlier this season, which is looking more and more like an outlier or an anomaly given how the rest of the schedule played out, there will be doubles. That will already be a massive departure from what happened against the Bucks. Butler, whose assist rate dropped in the First Round with Milwaukee playing shooters so tightly, may have to engage playmaker mode more often.

“We’ll see what happens,” Spoelstra said about potential Butler coverages. “They’re a well-schooled defense. They can send traps, whether he’s in the post or he’s handling the ball or end of clock. You have to be prepared for whatever. They did a lot of that in that First Round series. Jimmy is a little bit different. We’ll have to see.”

New York can change all the angles those doubles come from to maintain an element of surprise. Miami wasn’t perfect against doubles this year, but they know how to play around them. Butler might not be skipping passes to the weakside corner like LeBron James. He can make all the reads he needs to.

The tricky part will be all the other possessions where New York doesn’t fully commit two the ball. Thibodeau was among the coaches who took advantage of the new zone rules in the post hand-check NBA and popularized hybrid man-zone schemes. Depending on who you ask, he may even be the progenitor of that style of coverage. Since his days in Chicago – when his teams ironically covered pick-and-rolls more like Milwaukee does now, playing them two-on-two with shooters covered and keeping the ball away from the long corner above all else – he’s overloaded the strong side of the floor to both deter attackers and confuse their reads.

Knicks Preview: Brunson Strong Side

A version of this tactic is partially why LeBron James had his struggles in the 2011 NBA Finals against Dallas. A counter is to work the ball into the post, into the teeth of the coverage, to create better passing angles and force a more committed double. After developing their down-low arsenals, James and Dwyane Wade beat that coverage on the blocks the next time they faced Chicago a couple years later.

At the very least, there will be help coming at the rim. Butler won’t be able to beat his man and get a layup like he did at the end of Game 4, nor will the rim be uncovered like it was repeatedly at the end of Game 5 with Holiday chasing Butler over the top and through screens with no support switches on the back end.

Put simply, Butler’s game may be less direct in this series – less of the kitchen fight at the end of The Raid 2, more of Ip Man facing down 10 black belts. Both winnable situations. Just different. And the more Butler gets off the ball, the more others will have to make plays, not just shots, with it.

On the other side of the floor, the Knicks are happy to grind. Only the Mavericks, with Luka Doncic and eventually with Kyrie Irving as well, ran more isolations – and nobody had a lower assist rate than New York. The vast majority of those one-on-one possessions came from Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson, who we’ll focus on here, but keep in mind that RJ Barrett has games of 46 and 30 against Miami in the past two seasons, attacking mismatches mostly, and Immanuel Quickley is the sort of quick-twitch attacker who can attack the seams in Miami’s shell around the paint.

Randle, whose status is up in the air at the moment after turning his ankle in Game 5 against Cleveland, has oscillated between greatness and struggles against the HEAT the past few seasons. Bam Adebayo has at times engulfed Randle’s punishing game. At times Randle has gotten the better of it with his penchant for tough shotmaking. If Randle gets matchups other than Adebayo or Butler it’ll take some on-the-fly adjusting, but Miami has the personnel for that particular battle.

Brunson is a different story. Sure, you’d be happy with Butler or Adebayo switched on to him, but Brunson manipulates the game to get the matchups he wants as well as anyone and his style allows him to punish even bigger defenders.

“You don’t come across a player that is as craft and aggressive and physical, but also can get you off balance,” Spoelstra said. “And when he’s in the paint and around the basket and in a crowd, that’s probably where he’s most comfortable. That’s super unique. His pivots, his ability to draw fouls, his ability to finish at the rim in uncanny. You have to have great discipline and know his tendencies.”

Outside of Trae Young, Miami didn’t blitz anyone as often as they did Brunson (Quickley was a notable third on that list). That number is skewed a bit because three of the Miami-New York games came after Miami acquired Kevin Love and Cody Zeller post All-Star, when showing and blitzing became even more a regular part of their diet, but clearly the idea at the time was to avoid giving Brunson the switches he wants. To his credit, Brunson absorbed the extra defender and regularly made the correct play, producing 1.75 points-per across 21 possessions (aided by great shooting off his passes).

Knicks Preview: Brunson Blitz

In today’s NBA you can expect explosive offensive sequences in just about any matchup, but expect offense to eventually become a grind. Only the 76ers attempted more shots the final four seconds of the shot clock than both the Knicks and HEAT this season, and the Knicks had the least efficient half-court offense in the postseason against Cleveland. With New York finishing the year as the second-best offensive rebounding group – absolutely punishing Cleveland’s big front line on the glass in that series – and generally keeping their own turnovers low, the possession game will be at a premium. Miami was No. 4 in Defensive Rebounding percentage in the regular season and was excellent on the glass against a Milwaukee team that didn’t crash very often, but we all remember the Atlanta play-in game that wasn’t so long ago.

This is all just the barebones framework of what should be a tough, competitive series. Miami is going to challenge New York to move the ball in ways that hasn’t always been natural for their offense, especially in fourth quarters. The Knicks are going to challenge the non-Butler HEAT players to make quick decisions against a rotating defense, and make shots at least 80 percent as efficiently as they did against the Bucks. It’s going to be ugly, at times, for both sides.

What it won’t be is last series. The moment was incredible, but the moment has passed. The Academy Awards were last week. What role are you playing next? Even if the Knicks may not have the world-eating talent that Milwaukee did, they’re going to adjust and adapt with information on what the Bucks did and didn’t do.

Everything that came before, all the rotation changes and scheme toggling and injuries and water leaking out of the dam, it’s all over and done with the same as all the good, great and how-did-that-just-happen of recent weeks.

There are only eight teams left. The only thing left to do is keep winning. With a fresh opponent on the horizon, it’s on the HEAT to find a new way to do it.