After their Game 2 loss to the Knicks in New York, the Miami Heat recognized they needed to kick it up a notch defensively. They allowed Julius Randle to comfortably score 25 points on 18 shots and Jalen Brunson to pour in 30 points as the Knicks scored 111 points on 92 possessions.
Over the next several days between Games 2 and 3, the Heat talked about matching New York’s physicality and tightening the screws on defense. Bam Adebayo willingly shouldered much of the blame.
Credit for Saturday’s Game 3 win to take a 2-1 lead in the series goes to Adebayo, who reverted to his world-class defense and rattled Randle, and a key adjustment by coach Erik Spoelstra to limit Brunson. Call it Miami’s two-pronged approach to stopping the Knicks. Here’s how they did it.
Prong 1: Adebayo defends Randle
Adebayo set the ton on the Knicks’ first possession. Randle got the ball on the right side, took five dribbles with Adebayo draped over him, picked up his dribble, pivoted twice and settled for a one-legged fadeaway that barely grazed the rim. That’s how Randle’s night started. It ended with him scoring just 10 points on 4 of 15 shooting and committing four turnovers.
Spoelstra during his postgame media session pointed out how impressive it was that Adebayo was, “able to take a challenge on a great player like Randle, with limited help.”
Prong 2: Butler’s help defense
With Adebayo on an island against Randle, Miami was able to shift help to other areas of the court. Per usual, the Heat packed the paint and dared New York’s shooters to beat them (the Knicks shot 8 for 40 from 3-point range).
But Spoelstra added a new wrinkle, by slotting Butler onto R.J. Barrett and having Gabe Vincent start as the primary defender on Brunson. Previously, Butler started games defending Brunson, but this mixed up the assignments a little too much and often left Vincent with a size disadvantage. Brunson plays bigger than his 6-foot-2 frame, but he’s still 6-foot-2. It’s a more natural assignment for Vincent, whose lateral quickness helps him to stay in front of Brunson.
The primary benefit of shuffling the assignment, though, is that it transformed Butler from cornerback it free safety. Rather than tasking Butler to step with Brunson, he was able to play off the less-threatening Barrett and provide backside support on Brunson’s drives. With the paint crowded with Heat defenders, Brunson settled for the kind of mid-range jumpers Miami prefers he take.
Brunson went 7 for 20, including 0 for 5 on 3-pointers.
When Barrett wasn’t in the game, Butler slotted onto Josh Hart and did the same thing. Here, the Knicks get Max Strus switched onto 7-footer Isaiah Hartenstein who, despite having the mismatch, sees Butler stepping into the paint and passes it off to Hart, who gets stripped by Butler.
In the end, the Heat limited the Knicks to 86 points on 104 possessions. The Heat’s two-pronged approach turned Adebayo into a lockdown corner, Butler into a looming free safety and the Heat defense into a unit that has taken control of the series.