This is a matchup that will give everybody major 1990s vibes. These teams are set to replay one of the NBA’s foundational rivalries — and Thibodeau and Pat Riley were there. But it won’t be just nostalgia that drives this series.
The Heat pulled off the biggest shocker of the playoffs so far, dispatching the Milwaukee Bucks in five games, while the Knicks bullied the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round.
When you take a step back from the hype that is the rivalry, storylines, and potential classic games on the horizon, you see how evenly matched these two teams are.
So to get you guys ready for Game one, here is a series preview, key matchups to watch and the X factor for each team.
How can the Knicks slow down Jimmy Butler?
The guy just averaged 37.6 points, 4.8 assists and 1.8 steals against the team with the best record in the NBA, 3 DPOY candidates, and a 2x MVP.
So what exactly are the Knicks going to do with that?
Besides from praying, Tom Thibodeau is going to have to dig deep in his defensive arsenal to even slow down playoff Jimmy.
The Knicks were able to keep him relatively quiet this season in their matchups as his numbers against New York were about the same as his season-long stats. Quentin Grimes was the defender who spent the most time defending him, and fortunately for the Knicks, Grimes seems like he’ll return for Game 1 on Sunday after missing the last few games against the Cavaliers with a shoulder injury.
The Knicks will likely give Josh Hart some time on Butler as well, but even when Holiday, one of the NBA’s best defenders, has trouble guarding Butler, you know the Knicks will have trouble too. The best thing the Knicks could do is try to force the ball out of Butler’s hands since the Heat have so few playmakers aside from him.
Butler is the Heat’s main source of offense. He’s not just their top scorer; he’s also their best facilitator. And offensive life for them is even more difficult with Tyler Herro and even Victor Oladipo injured. The Knicks can trap Butler. Force him to give up the ball so someone else has to make a play. They could double-team him in the post, too, especially when he tries to back down mismatches.
Slow down Jalen Brunson or die a slow death
The difference between game planning against Butler and Brunson is night and day. While both are their teams top scorers and facilitators, there are more ways to slow down the Knicks guard than there are to slow down Butler.
This isn’t shade towards Brunson who officially arrived as a franchise point guard this season. It is the reality of the sport, small guards do not dominate deep playoff runs with the exception of Steph Curry and Isiah Thomas.
But the Heat have to put in the work for this narrative to continue.
Against the Cavs, Brunson dominated in ways that can carry over into this series. But that will depend on how effective the Heat execute their game plan.
Miami could cause problems for Brunson by switching much more frequently than the Cavaliers did. Brunson feasted against the Cavs because they had bad defensive guards and bigs who played back, which gave Brunson room to maneuver. How Brunson would fare against a more aggressive and physical defense.
While never being the initial defender, Bam Adebayo will be the deciding cog in the Heat defense that will determine how effective Brunson will be. Brunson can get downhill and get Adebayo off balance, allowing Brunson to get to the rim or continue to draw fouls. Or Adebayo will use his quickness as a big and his length over the small guard to alter shots and force turnovers as he penetrates the defense.
I’ll bet by the end of this series that Butler logs more minutes guarding Brunson than any other Heat defender does, but as Thibodeau always says, you don’t guard the game’s top players individually; you do it collectively.
The Heat blitz Brunson on pick-and-rolls, especially when Adebayo is manning the screener — and even more so when that screener is Robinson, who doesn’t make plays in the open court. I assume Caleb Martin will spend time on him, as well. But Miami will mix it up. Few teams in the league flip defensive coverages as seamlessly as the Heat do. They will play lots of zone, especially when the Knicks don’t have much shooting on the floor. I could see them switching Adebayo, possibly the NBA’s most-versatile defensive big man, onto him. Whatever they do, I imagine the goal will be to take one-on-one opportunities away from Brunson, who has become one of the leagues top isolation players.
Heat’s X Factor: Kyle Lowry
Lowry has had two tough seasons in Miami, but he still has his occasional moments of his once great self. If he can string enough of them along then the Heat will have something. The Heat need him, too.
They are atrophying playmakers. Herro is out. Oladipo is out. There is a large burden on Butler’s shoulders but can he carry them for another round, especially as Thibodeau builds defenses to stop him? If Lowry can provide some juice, he might give Miami the complimentary help they need.
Knicks X factor: R.J. Barrett
Let’s be brutally honest in our assessment of R.J. Barrett. When the Knicks drafted him with he 3rd overall pick, complimentary role player was not the vision they had in mind. But with Brunson and Randle assuming the top two spots, he has essentially been pushed into that 3rd tier player for them.
But with Randle out for game 1 with his ankle sprain, and his availably unknown going forward, Barrett needs to ascend to his heights. Brunson can not carry this team past a Erik Spolestra, Jimmy Butler led team. He needs help and looking at the Knicks roster, Barrett is the only one who can explode for 3o. If Barrett hovers around the 15 point threshold, the Knicks are in trouble.
New York needs to get Barrett in easy scoring positions with mismatches and transition points early to give him the confidence to attack late.
Barrett exploded in the Cleveland series. Now, we’ll see if he can sustain his play against the Heat.
Key Matchup: Adebayo vs Robinson
Robinson feasted against the Cavs. He was the most dominant player in that series. He owned the boards and overwhelmed Jarrett Allen at times. The Knicks scored 18.3 percent of their points in the series on second chances.
The Knicks created 76 second-chance possessions for 91 points in their first-round series, while the Cavs had just 53 for 55 points. Robinson had 29 offensive rebounds all by himself.
As good as that offensive rebounding was, it also covered up some highly inefficient first-opportunity offense for the Knicks. They had the second-lowest field-goal percentage of any first-round team, and they hit just 41.3 percent of their shots if you take out all their second possessions. Though it might be easy to say that the Knicks are in trouble against a better rebounding team, these offensive rebounds are a feature, not a bug for the Knicks, and Robinson is one of the best offensive rebounders in the league.
Still, the Heat will present a different kind of defense for the Knicks and rebounding will be much tougher. The Heat ranked fourth in defensive rebounding rate this season while Cleveland ranked 20th. The Knicks ranked second in the NBA in offensive rebounding rate at 31.8 percent this season but it dropped off against the Heat to a rate that would have ranked 15th this season. They also may be without Randle for at least one game, or he could be hobbled and limited. He remains one of their best rebounders. How efficient the Knicks are in their primary offense could swing the series.
Prediction: Knicks in 7
Orange and Blue skies. I think this series could mirror the Warriors-Kings series, and go the distance. I believe Brunson’s ascension continues, with multiple 30 point games.
Jimmy Butler exhausted himself during the 2020 Finals run, and in that season he had the help of Tyler Hero as a secondary shot maker and creator. In round 1 it took superhuman like performances from Butler for the Heat to win. Does he have another 4 40 point games in him? Can he average 37 across this series if it is a long one?
Do I trust the lack of support on the Heat bench? No.
For New York, I like their depth and playmakers more. Is this a confident based pick? Absolutely not. Butler could easily repeat his round one and embarrass the Knicks like they’ve been embarrassed for the past two decades.
The Knicks, assuming Randle is back for Game 2, have more all star level play, and more bucket getters. They also have more defensive capable players. Its going to be a close series, and Spolestra is a full tier or two above Thibs, but I think the talent and depth win this series.
Knicks close it out in front of a euphoric MSG crowd.