The Miami Heat host the New York Knicks tonight with a 3-2 lead and a chance to end the series and advance to the Eastern Conference finals. Here are three burning questions that could determine the Game 6 outcome.
Will “Playoff Jimmy” return?
Late in the fourth quarter, Miami Heat down six with under two minutes left to play, Jimmy Butler with the ball in his hands saw an opportunity to take advantage of a Knicks weakness.
By that point in the game, Butler had been limited to mostly a facilitating role as the Knicks sent double-team after double-team his way, or deployed Quentin Grimes to defend him on an island.
With the Heat mounting a comeback, Bam Adebayo set a screen that sent Grimes crumpling to the court. Grimes, who appeared to injure his leg, hobbled up and back into the play. Butler, who struggled to create separation from the second-year guard all game, decided to go after his wounded opponent.
Butler called away a Caleb Martin screen, used his right hand to dribble to the middle of the floor near the foul line and, when he tried to make his move toward the rim, had the ball stripped away from him from Grimes. For the Knicks, it was the play that highlighted a gutsy Game 5 win to keep their season alive and proof of something that has worked all series.
Per the NBA’s tracking data, Butler is shooting 5 for 17 (29.4%) when guarded by Grimes. Although Grimes is sometimes aided by a second Knicks defender, there’s no doubt he’s done a better job defending Butler than anyone else this postseason.
Grimes has taken this matchup personally, saying after Game 5 that Butler “has been the best player in the playoffs so far. Knowing I have that matchup every night, be a little more disciplined. If I have to play 48, 25 [minutes], it doesn’t matter. I have to make sure I lock in defensively and try to do whatever I can to slow him down.”
Butler took only 12 field-goal attempts in Game 5 and scored only five points in the fourth quarter. The Heat needed more to close out the series, and they didn’t get it as they so often had this postseason.
According to Adebayo, that could change Friday night. When asked if Butler might take the Grimes matchup personally, Adebayo chuckled. That reaction alone said enough, but Adebayo continued.
“I feel like he’s going to come out in that mode tonight,” Adebayo said. “You might see a different type of him that we didn’t see in New York.”
Butler confidently stated after Game 5 that he made the right basketball plays, but making the “right plays” isn’t necessarily what got the Heat to this point. When at his most dangerous, Butler attacked whoever was guarding him – Jrue Holiday or Khris Middleton in the first round, Josh Hart in this round – and scored against them with a series of hard drives, improbable baseline jumpers and timely 3-pointers.
At home in Game 6, the Heat need that version of Jimmy Butler.
Can the Heat slow down Jalen Brunson?
Jalen Brunson has given the Miami Heat defense fits this series, scoring 30 points or more three times in five games. Now the series shifts to Miami for the final time on Friday night, with the pressure squarely on the Heat to limit Brunson and close out the series.
In Wednesday’s Game 5, Brunson scored 38 points on 12 of 22 shooting in 48 minutes to help the New York Knicks stave off elimination. The Knicks will likely need him to paint a similar masterpiece in order to push the series to a Game 7.
“Just try to continue to make things difficult,” Gabe Vincent, Brunson’s primary defender this series, said after Friday morning’s shootaround. “He’s going to have a high usage, he’s going to make plays, he’s going to score. Just continue to try to make things as hard as possible.”
Most of Brunson’s damage has come in the non-restricted paint area, where he’s shooting 65.7% on 7 field goal attempts per game. Only Nikola Jokic has scored more points from that distance in the second round of the playoffs. Brunson is also shooting 40% on midrange jumpers.
“He’s at his best outside of when he has a love dribble and he gets into the paint and it starts pivoting and starts playing his game,” Vincent said. “He’s got great feet and he’s a great finisher.”
Vincent added: “It’s got to be a concerted effort for the whole team to take care of him on his drives, his attacks.”
Brunson is averaging 29 points in five games, more than any Heat player – including Jimmy Butler (24.8 points per game) – in this series.
Brunson is also getting to the foul line 7.4 times per game, including going 10 of 12 in Game 5. On Wednesday, Vincent picked up four fouls, Adebayo five, Kyle Lowry five, and Caleb Martin and Jimmy Butler each had three. All spent time defending Brunson.
“Biggest thing for us is making sure we stay out of foul trouble,” Adebayo said. “Make him take tough shots and get the rebound and run.”
The Heat don’t plan to change much in terms of scheme in Game 6. In previous games, they managed to bother Brunson by pressuring him high on the floor, showing bodies when he comes off ball screens and crowding the paint. If anything, the Heat plan to double-down on that strategy on Friday night.
“I think we can apply more pressure,” Martin said. “I don’t think that we put as much pressure as we did in some of the previous games. I think with him playing 48 and being that efficient, I think that says a lot on our end about how much pressure we didn’t apply.
“So we’ll take that to heart and make sure it’s a little bit different (tonight).”
Will the Heat finally start making 3-pointers?
For more behind the Heat’s 3-point shooting, check out this piece by our Azam Masood. Here’s what a few Heat players had to say about the looks they got in Game 5, when they went 13 of 43 from 3-point range.
- Martin: “I thought we got great looks, especially early on in the first quarter. We definitely got the looks that we wanted and obviously, it’s just a matter of making them or missing them, and it was just one of those games where you were missing. We’ll make sure we come out a little more focused and knock down those same looks.
- Adebayo: “Yeah, that’s a make-or-miss situation.”