Working As Intended: The HEAT Are Beating The Knicks At The Identity Game, Tom Thibodeau Sends Two At Jimmy Butler And Max Strus Goes Long

Leading wire to wire, the HEAT took a 2-1 series lead over the New York Knicks with a 19-point victory despite posting their lowest Offensive Efficiency of the postseason.


Coming into this series, there were two truths at odds with one another.

The first was that the Knicks were one of the most aggressive – or assaulting, to borrow a term Erik Spoelstra has been using over the past week – paint attacking teams in the league. New York finished the regular season averaging 56.3 drives per 100 possessions, No. 2 in the league. A handful of other teams scored more in the paint, but that’s only because the Knicks were so dependent on drives to grease the wheels of their offensive machine, topping both the Thunder and Sacramento Kings to average 11 kickout paint passes leading to a shot per 100 possessions.

The HEAT, meanwhile, allowed the fewest drives in the league, 41.1 per 100 possessions, and the fewest field goal attempts in the paint, 38.3 per 100.

Something was going to have to give. New York’s offensive strength was Miami’s defensive strength. Whoever was able to consistently get to their game was going to have a major advantage in this series in part because doing so would mean taking the other team away from what they do best.

In the first half of Game 1, New York was coming out on top. Between 20 combined paint points from Jalen Brunson and RJ Barrett – Julius Randle was not available – the Knicks put up 40 paint points in those opening quarters. One team looked like itself, the other was but a shadow of their own intentions.

After tightening a few screws, here’s what the next five halves of basketball have looked like when it comes to Knicks paint points.

Game 1 Second Half: 22
Game 2 First Half: 14
Game 2 Second Half: 20
Game 3 First Half: 24
Game 3 Second Half: 12

Rough math but just for emphasis if you extrapolate those numbers you end up with 36.8 paint points per game. During the regular season, the Dallas Mavericks ranked last in the league with 42.8 paint points per game. Even if we account for the relatively slow pace of this series, at best the Knicks of the past 10 quarters are scoring the equivalent of the fewest paint points in the league.

From New York’s perspective, that might be a workable situation if they were meeting the interior defense with a hearty helping of outside shooting. In a sense they are, generating 32 catch-and-shoot threes per 100 possessions, a rate that would have led the league during the season. Problem is, the Knicks are also shooting 30.7 percent on those catch-and-shoot threes. If you take out Game 2, when Miami shifted heavily towards zone defense with Jimmy Butler injured, New York is converting just 23.7 percent of their catch-and-shoot opportunities.

What has that left them with? Not a whole lot. New York is scoring 108.4 points per 100 possessions against the HEAT, equivalent to last-place Charlotte. Their Shot Quality, 49.4 expected effective field-goal percentage, would have ranked last in the NBA this season. Their Shot Quality on two-point shots, 46.1, would have been the lowest for any team in the past five seasons.

We’ve been talking about Miami’s defensive philosophy during the Butler era for the past four seasons so we don’t need to dive into it too much right now. You know the gist. They send help. They shrink the driving lanes. They show bodies.

“It’s always easier said than done,” Erik Spoelstra said. “They’re a great attacking team, they’re a driving team, they know how to get to the free throw line, they’re relentless, they don’t stop. It’s not like if you defend it 10 straight times than they decide to get passive. No. They’re aggressive. You always have to be ON. ON *Spoelstra snaps his fingers for emphasis*. All five guys. You can’t glitch. You can’t blink. You can’t not be in your spots early.”

Everything they’re doing to the Knicks is what they’ve been doing for years regardless of whether of what their pick-and-roll coverages – switching, dropping, showing – have been. Whether you’ve been with the team for multiple seasons or merely multiple months, everyone knows the focus.

“[We’re] continuing to make that not only a point of emphasis but just keep those boxes and elbows occupied,” Kevin Love said. “Having bodies there. Make them kick the ball out. Us having multiple efforts. Making them when they drive the ball make sure we’re trapping the box, taking away their middle drives, forcing their guys into tough shots and things they don’t want to do.”

For all the details and technical aspects of their scheme, what jumped out in Game 3 were all the times they didn’t help, when they didn’t close the gaps. There were two variations of this. First, compare what Jalen Brunson sees here:

To how the HEAT play these two possessions, one with Jimmy Butler defending Barrett – Butler swapped over to Barrett after defending Brunson for much of Game 1 – and the other with Adebayo on Randle.

Knicks Game 3: No Help Heat

It’s recommended that you take any statistics that use the Shots Defended aspect of tracking data with a little salt as it isn’t something that is consistently accurate nor representative of actual gameplay, but with that in mind the Knicks shot 6-of-26 with Butler or Adebayo as the closest defenders to the attempt in Game 3. Exactly half of those shots came from Brunson and Randle.

Then there were instances where a player who isn’t one of New York’s primary attackers tried to make a play with the ball and Miami made a threat assessment – best illustrated by the following possession where help meets Brunson at the top of the paint and then the HEAT allowed Josh Hart to attack one-on-one.

Knicks Game 3: Brunson Help Hart No Help

New York’s offensive process was a little all over the place on Saturday – Miami’s early energy appeared to throw them entirely off balance at times – so we won’t dwell on this too much. There’s only so many times a team is going to end up with an Offensive Rating of 89.6 no matter how great your defense is. Game 4 could look entirely different. But different can still be on Miami’s terms. Unless their outside shots are falling, New York hasn’t shown an ability to consistently get to their own game, especially against the HEAT’s man-to-man coverage, since those first two quarters of the series.

This is who Miami is, and who they are right now is beating who the Knicks want to be.

“It’s one of those things where you have that identity, and you stick with that identity,” Adebayo said. “The biggest thing for us is closing off gaps, making them plays in smaller spaces and not giving them airspace.”


Max Strus always finds a way to surprise you, and it isn’t always with his shooting. He’ll put a shoulder into someone’s chest and force his way to the rim. He’ll catch you off guard with a same-foot quick finish around a shotblocker. He’ll sprint from the weakside to deflect a pass he read before anyone else. He’ll block shots in the paint or he’ll toss a perfect pocket pass to Adebayo out of a pick-and-roll. He likes to remind people that he’s more than just a shooter, and he backs up that claim.

Saturday was a surprise even by his standards.

Knicks Game 3: Max Touchdown

What impressed most about his touchdown pass from Kevin Love wasn’t just that he caught it and still had the balance to take it in for a dunk, but that Love threw the pass at all. This wasn’t a player streaking down court by himself. Brunson was ahead of the play – the Knicks have since adjusted in transition after all those Love outlets in the third quarter of Game 1 – and Strus was not exactly open. You don’t throw that ball if you don’t trust your teammate to go up and get it.

“I told Kevin, ‘Just throw it, I’ll go get it,’ says Strus, who adds that he played some wide receiver back in eighth grade. “He said he trusts me just as much as he trusts Jimmy throwing an outlet pass.”

That long-ball connection was a fun diversion in an otherwise grindy offensive struggle. This is the shot that really deserves some extra attention.

Knicks Game 3: Max Baseline Sprint

The amount of body control required to do that, sprinting baseline and turning on a single dribble in the corner to shoot the exact opposite direction you were coming from, is what separates great off-the-catch shooters and great movement shooters. Strus is the latter, and he carries with him a different floor gravity as a result.


Since Miami was blown out by the Dallas Mavericks on January 20, there has been a lingering thought that the way Dallas was able to throw a monkey-sized wrench into Miami’s offense with regular doubles on Jimmy Butler’s post-ups was going to crop up again at some point during the playoffs. A couple other teams had tried it during the regular season, Phoenix and New Orleans among them, but with Miami opting to keep Butler mostly out on the perimeter where it’s tougher to double in the next meeting with Dallas we never got much more than a glimpse at a team truly committed to doubling.

Game 3 was as close as we’ve gotten. Tracking systems don’t catch all double teams perfectly, but the three Butler isolations which drew doubles in Game 3 now stand as the second-most Butler has seen all season.

“At least we’ve seen a lot of that,” Spoelstra said. “He’s developed his game so much that he’s been able to find ways to be efficient in a lot of different areas. Off the ball. On the ball. In the post. Catch and shoots. In pick and rolls. You need your best players to have that type of versatility, because if they’re going to try and take you out of something, you get to other stuff. But that ended up getting us some good opportunities for the other guys. That’s really the result of a lot of times when he was in the post doubled by other teams in the regular season.”

With the game as mucked up as it was it’s tough to say what real impact Tom Thibodeau’s adjustment had. The Knicks clearly wanted to try this out – you don’t just double like this accidentally – but with almost nothing else working for them you can’t make much of a judgement call on a coverage that only affected a handful of possessions. Playing it safe, we’ll call the results a mixed bag.

The first double was rather simple and Butler decided to shoot right over the top of it. The second was more interesting, with New York’s rotations running Duncan Robinson, positioned as the nearest man to Butler in order to capitalize on the help, off the line.

Knicks Game 3: Jimmy No Shot Double

After that, the opportunities were there. On one double Miami had to swing the ball around multiple times to stretch out New York’s closeouts. On the final one, Strus’ relocation led to an easy, first-pass three.

Knicks Game 3: Jimmy Doubles Good Threes

On a basic level, the doubles accomplished their goal of getting the ball out of Butler’s hands, notably even when he didn’t have one of the more advantageous matchups on the floor. But Butler saw the help coming each time, aided by the second defender coming from the same direction and angle almost each time. If Butler getting off the ball means generating open threes, that’s a trade both he and the HEAT are generally going to be willing to make. As we’ve seen this postseason, they aren’t always going to shoot 21.9 percent from three as they did in Game 3.

“We’re used to it a little bit,” Butler said of double teams. “It happened quite a lot in the regular season. Make the right plays, pass the ball out, shoot over the double team sometimes. More often than not, pass the ball. [We] got shooters on the outside. They’re going to line them up and make them. We missed a couple tonight, but we’re going to keep taking the same ones knowing they’re going to go in next game.”

The Knicks have plenty else to clean up but keep these plays in mind. Thibodeau played one of his cards here and offered Miami some information to digest and consider. Maybe that’s enough to make Butler think for one extra half second on a couple possessions later in the series as he anticipates the double. Maybe it doesn’t change a single thing for him, especially if he doesn’t have to ever worry about help showing up on his blind side. He knows help is coming fast and furious in the paint on any drive regardless. But Game 4 could easily be a possession game and if Butler gets rolling, how Miami handles these doubles could easily turn a game, and a series.

For now, the HEAT are in control. They’ve controlled the paint against a team that wants to live in it and they’re getting contributions up and down the board. In Game 3 they showed they can beat their opponent even without their own shots falling, something the Knicks have yet to do.

A series can take many twists and turns, but for now it’s the HEAT who are playing their game and the Knicks who are searching for their own.