This is not a matchup we were expecting, but it’s a matchup with a lot of juice.
The New York Knicks and Miami Heat each dispatched their higher-seeded opponent in five games in the first round, and one of them will be just the fourth low seed (5 or lower) in the last 24 years to reach the conference finals.
This will be the sixth playoff meeting between these two franchises and the first since 2012 when the Heat (on their way to their first of two straight championships) won in five games in the first round. The other four postseason meetings, played in four straight years from 1997-2000, all went the distance with the Knicks winning three of the four. Those five series will have nothing to do with this one, and Eastern Conference basketball in the late 90s was a much different game than the one they’re playing now. But relative to other series in 2023, this could be a grind-out affair, where every possession, every rebound and every trip to the free-throw line is critical.
The Knicks have Jalen Brunson and a distinct home-court advantage. The Heat have Erik Spoelstra and Jimmy Butler, who averaged 37.6 points in the first round and left Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau hanging in Minnesota less than four years ago. It’s time to make more history.
3 things to watch
1. Julius Randle’s availability and mobility. Randle re-sprained his left ankle late in the second quarter of Game 5 in Cleveland on Wednesday. Randle had a rough series against the Cavs, shooting just 34%, struggling both inside (14-for-31 in the paint) and out (8-for-34 from 3-point range). And the Knicks were much better with him off the floor (plus-13.2 points per 100 possessions) than they were with him on the floor (plus-0.7). The Knicks are potent when Randle’s shot is falling, but he can also be the reason for some stagnant possessions. If he’s not 100%, his lack of mobility on defense could be an issue.
2. Bench play. The Knicks had a top-five bench in the regular season, when bench minutes were a struggle for the Heat. But Miami had the top-ranked bench in the first round, outscoring the Bucks by almost 19 points per 100 possessions in Caleb Martin’s 133 minutes on the floor. With both coaches having a few reserves they can trust, Brunson’s 37.6 minutes per game (25th) were the most that any player on either team averaged in the first round. There will be plenty of minutes when starters are off the floor in this series as well, and those minutes will be critical.
3. The offensive glass. The Knicks absolutely destroyed the Cavs on the glass in the first round, grabbing 39.4% of available offensive rebounds, the highest rate for any team in any series in the last nine years. That made up for their poor shooting from the field (they ranked last in effective field goal percentage in the first round), and the difference in second-chance points in that series (91-55) was bigger than the overall point differential (plus-27 for the Knicks). Though they have a small frontline and played the most zone of any team in 19 years of Synergy tracking, the Heat ranked fourth in defensive rebounding percentage in the regular season and seventh vs. the Knicks, who averaged just 10.5 second-chance points in the season series. Mitchell Robinson had nine offensive boards in his 77 minutes (4.2 per 36) against Miami, compared to 29 in 141 minutes (7.4 per 36) in the first round.
Clutch shot-making. Both the Knicks and Heat ranked in the bottom five in pace in the regular season, and New York played even slower in the first round against Cleveland. The possession counts promise to be low, making it more likely that some of these games will come down to execution in the final few minutes of the fourth quarter. The Heat led the league in clutch wins (32-22) in the regular season, and Butler scored 21 points (on 6-for-12 shooting) in just 12.5 clutch minutes in the first round. But one reason that the Knicks won the season series is that they shot an amazing 11-for-15 on clutch shots over the three games that were within five in the last five.
Number To Know
13.5 — In the first round, the Knicks’ defense held the Cavs to just 101.9 points per 100 possessions, 13.5 fewer than Cleveland scored in the regular season (115.5, eighth). That was the biggest offensive drop-off for any team from the regular season to the first round.
After ranking fourth and 11th defensively in Tom Thibodeau’s first two seasons as head coach, the Knicks ranked 19th this season (114.2 points allowed per 100). And their regular-season success was more about the league’s fourth-ranked offense, which ranked in the top 10 in free throw rate, turnover rate and offensive rebounding percentage. But the Knicks have seemingly flipped the switch defensively, and they held the Cavs to under 105 points per 100 possessions in all four of their first-round wins.
The Heat, meanwhile, have flipped the switch on offense, ranking second on that end of the floor (119.0 points scored per 100) in the first round (despite playing what was the league’s fourth-ranked defense) after ranking 25th offensively (112.3) in the regular season. Amazingly, this series might be strength vs. strength when the Heat have the ball, when the regular season would have told you otherwise.
The Heat just knocked off the No. 1 team in the league, and they did it in five games. But as noted above, they may have been playing a little over their head offensively, shooting 45% from 3-point range with Butler making more 3s (12) than he had in any five-game stretch since Feb. 2018 (when he was playing for Thibodeau). The Knicks, meanwhile, dominated the Cavs despite shooting just 28% from beyond the arc. This series could be a grind, but New York should be the better team. Knicks in 7.
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