By record, the New York Knicks owned the Miami Heat this season, winning three of the four games. It only takes a little bit of drilling down, however, to realize this matchup is much closer. The final point differential for the regular-season series? Knicks by a measly six points. Two of the four games came down to a game-winning (Julius Randle’s improbable 3-pointer in Miami) or potential game-winning basket (Tyler Herro’s missed 3-pointer at Madison Square Garden). These two teams enter much closer to even.
Now that the smoke has begun to clear on Jimmy Butler and the Heat’s scintillating upset over the Milwaukee Bucks, let’s take a look at some of the biggest questions that will determine the Heat’s next playoff matchup against the Knicks.
How do the Knicks guard Jimmy Butler?
Butler’s averages in the first round: 37.6 points on 59.7% shooting, 6 rebounds and 4.8 assists. It might be the great first-round series playoff performance in league history. Jrue Holiday, your favorite defender’s favorite defender, couldn’t stop him. Neither could Khris Middleton. Giannis and Brook Lopez, when in his vicinity, couldn’t keep him away from the basket.
Now the Knicks are up. In the regular season, the Knicks used Quentin Grimes and Josh Hart as Butler’s primary defender. Grimes held Butler to 7 of 16 shooting in four games, and Hart held Butler to 4 of 10 shooting in three games. Other Knicks, like R.J. Barrett, Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle, too turns, but going into this series expect Grimes and Hart to get the brunt of the Butler assignment.
With Grimes as his closest defender, Butler in four games shot 7 of 16 and had nine assists and three turnovers. With Hart as his closest defender, Butler in three games shot 4 of 10 and had two assists and one turnover.
Hart, in particular, is strong enough to provide at least some friction for Butler in the post.
For both Grimes and Hart, perhaps their greatest strength as defenders is their screen navigation. Grimes does a great job of making himself “skinny” and getting over screens. Hart bulldozes his way through.
To make it tough, Butler wil do a fair amount of mismatch hunting and the Heat will employ drags, staggered screens and the like to create some wiggle room and get Butler switched onto Randle or a plodding center.
Despite the numbers, Holiday did defend Butler well. He just made tough shots. Hart and Grimes are good defenders who can give Butler trouble, but this matchup will come down to whether Butler can keep scoring at herculean levels.
On the other side: Can the Heat stay in front of Jalen Brunson?
In three games against the Heat this season, Brunson averaged 20.7 points on 58.5% shooting and 5.7 assists. He doesn’t put up huge numbers, but he’s the efficient motor of what was a top five offense in the regular season.
During their meetings, the Heat had a hard time staying in front of Brunson. Regardless of who was assigned to him (Butler and Gabe Vincent drew most of the assignment), Brunson shimmied his way into layups, floaters and jumpers. Guarding Brunson is a lot like guarding a smaller Butler. Both use a dizzying array of shoulder movements, pump-fakes and pivots to get to their spots.
Brunson’s timing coming off screens can create confusion.
And he’s good at showing the ball, getting his defender to lean one way and then darting in the other direction.
Butler, in particular, had a hard time staying in front of Brunson in the regular season. With Butler as the closest defender, Brunson shot 7 of 12 and had three assists to two turnovers. Towards the end of their final meeting, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra ended up moving Vincent onto Brunson more. Both will see time against Brunson in this series, but how Spoelstra starts games and ends games will be something to monitor.
What will the Heat’s starting lineup be?
The Heat used three different starting lineups in their first-round series but settled on Kevin Love as the fifth starter alongside Vincent, Max Strus (at shooting guard for the injured Tyler Herro), Butler and Bam Adebayo in order to match up with Milwaukee’s size.
Against a similarly large Knicks team, expect the Heat to use the same starting lineup so that Love can match up with Mitchell Robinson and Adebayo can guard Randle (if available).
Who are the X-factors?
The biggest X-factor in this series is Randle’s health. In the Knicks’ final game against the Cavaliers, Randle re-aggrevated the same left ankle that he sprained against the Heat near the end of the season. His status for Game 1 is still unclear. Randle averaged 21 points on 49.2% shooting, 7.5 rebounds and 4.8 assists against the Heat this season, and had the crushing game-winning 3 in Miami at the end of March.
For the Heat, there’s a lot of pressure on Love to continue his strong first-round performance. The Knicks gobbled up 39.4% of available offensive rebounds against Love’s former team in the first round, and Love’s presence on the boards will be huge to mitigate the Knicks’ second-chance points.
Are there any other trends to be aware of?
- The Heat are shooting 45% on 3s in the playoffs. The Knicks are shooting 28.2%. Both numbers are unsustainable. At some point, the Heat will cool off and the Knicks will shoot closer to their 35.7% regular-season mark.
- Can the Heat bench continue to be a strength? The Heat’s bench in the regular season had a net rating of minus-1.1 (22nd in the NBA) while the Knicks with fourth at plus-1.9.
- The Knicks are the better rebounding team and will create extra possessions that way but, for the Heat, creating turnovers could be the equalizer. The Heat averaged 14.8 takeaways in this matchup during the regular season, but turned it over only 10.8 times per game.