No team is more comfortable in tense situations than the Miami Heat.
They’re comfortable being the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, having qualified for the playoffs via a Play-In Tournament in which they trailed by three points with (what could have been) three minutes left in their season. They dispatched the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in five games and immediately took home-court advantage from the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
And the Heat are comfortable down the stretch of close games. They led the league with 32 clutch wins in the regular season (tied for the second most in the last nine seasons) and were one of two teams that ranked in the top 10 in both clutch offense and clutch defense.
So when Game 6 of the conference semis remained tight throughout the second half, the Heat were never uncomfortable. And they made the plays needed on both ends of the floor to finish the Knicks off with a 96-92 victory.
“That’s what we do better than anything, is grind these wins out,” Jimmy Butler told ESPN immediately after the game. “We’ve been in games like this all year long. We’re prepared for it. We stayed with it to the end.”
Here are some notes, numbers and film from a game that put Miami in the Eastern Conference finals for the third time in the last four years …
A contrast in 4-on-3 execution
In the final quarter of the series, both teams wanted to get the ball out of the opposing star’s hands. The Knicks ran double-teams at Butler when he was 25 feet from the basket, and the Heat were comfortable playing four on three. When Butler was seemingly trapped on the sideline midway through the fourth, Bam Adebayo flashed to the ball and got it moving until Max Strus got an in-rhythm 3 …
Later in the period, Adebayo was the beneficiary when Gabe Vincent flashed to the ball and attacked …
The Knicks, meanwhile, weren’t so comfortable playing four on three. For most of this series, Brunson had been able to wait out pick-and-roll traps and then attack the remaining defender. But in the fourth quarter on Friday, the Heat held those traps until Brunson was forced to get rid of the ball.
With the Knicks down six and a little more than two minutes left, Brunson got rid of it, but his teammates were spaced poorly and couldn’t take advantage of the four on three …
Brunson got the ball back and was able to attack before another double-team could get there, drawing Kyle Lowry off the strong-side corner. But Josh Hart missed an open corner 3.
Brunson finished with 41 points on 14-for-22 shooting in Game 6. His teammates finished with 51 on 13-for-49 (27%).
A costly decision, a timely rotation
Thanks to a flagrant foul from Vincent when the Heat were inbounding the ball, the Knicks were able to trim that six-point deficit to two with one possession. And after Butler missed a jumper (going away from the screen to avoid another double-team), New York had a chance to tie or take the lead.
Like Butler, Brunson went away from Hart’s approaching screen. But the Heat were able to double-team him anyway, because Strus pealed off Hart to help on Brunson’s drive. Again, the Heat held onto the trap …
Brunson stepped through the trap, but didn’t kick the ball out to Hart, who shot 6-for-27 (22%) from 3-point range over the final eight games of the postseason after shooting 31-for-57 (54%) over his first 28 games with the Knicks.
Instead, Brunson tried to get the ball to Julius Randle, who dove from the weak side behind Adebayo, who was ready to rotate out to Hart. But Vincent reacted just quickly enough to step in front of Randle’s dive, and Randle could only get one hand on the ball. It bounced into Lowry’s hands and the Knicks never had another chance to tie or take the lead …
No Brunson, no offense
Brunson played all 48 minutes in Game 5, and the Knicks needed all 48. They probably needed all 48 in Game 6 too, but the point guard sat down with his team up seven and 9:55 left in the second quarter.
His time on the bench was brief, but it was damaging. The Heat outscored the Knicks 7-0 in the 2:07 that Brunson was off the floor early in the second, with New York going scoreless on its four offensive possessions. The Knicks had scored efficiently against the Miami zone through the first five games of the series, but the Heat went back to it with Brunson on the bench and the Knicks had a couple of brutal possessions against it.
On one of them, they did nothing until Miles McBride called Mitchell Robinson up for a screen with only 10 seconds left on the shot clock. RJ Barrett tried to attack a seam, but Adebayo was there and forced a terrible shot …
Brunson also sat the last 38 seconds of the half after picking up his third foul. He finished a plus-5 over his 255 minutes on the floor in the series, but the Knicks were outscored by 28 points (37.4 per 100 possessions) in his 33 minutes on the bench.
The 3-point shooting in this series was bad. In fact, this was the first playoff series in the last seven years (since Celtics-Hawks in 2016) in which both teams shot worse than 31% from beyond the arc. Game 6 was the fourth in the series in which both teams shot less than 34% from deep.
In other games, free throws were the difference. In Game 6, it was points in the paint, where the Heat were a plus-18 (38-20). That was their biggest differential in their 13 postseason games (including the Play-In) and the Knicks’ second biggest discrepancy of the entire season (93 total games).
The Knicks’ 20 points in the paint were 10 fewer than scored in any other game this season. Even when the Heat didn’t double Brunson, they showed him a crowd. And no matter what, priority No. 1 was protecting the paint, even if it left Knicks open on the perimeter.
Priority No. 1 for the Knicks this offseason could be finding more shooting to complement Brunson. They could also use some more lineup versatility so that they’re not always playing a non-shooting center and so that Randle and Obi Toppin aren’t full-time fours that take a high percentage of their shots from deep.
Four well-earned days off
Having avoided a Game 7 that would have taken place at Madison Square Garden on Monday, the Heat will now have four full days off before beginning the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday (8:30 ET, TNT) in either Boston or Philadelphia. That’s good news for Butler’s right ankle, which he sprained in Game 1 of this series and still seemed to be bothering him to a certain degree in Game 6.
But it seems that the Heat would have to win another series to get back Tyler Herro, who fractured his right hand in Game 1 of the first round. When he had surgery on April 21, the Heat said he’d be out a minimum of six weeks. That puts him back in uniform no earlier than June 2, which is the day after Game 1 of the Finals.
The Heat have done just fine without both Herro and Victor Oladipo, who suffered a left knee injury in Game 3 of the first round. They’re comfortable playing on the road, they’re comfortable playing close games, and they’re comfortable playing shorthanded.
Now, they’re comfortably in the Eastern Conference finals.
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