Erik Spoelstra, following the Miami Heat’s close-out win over the New York Knicks on Friday, walked into the postgame press conference with a styrofoam cup in hand. He declined to say what was in it, but you can probably guess.
If it was an alcoholic beverage, it was well deserved after a hard-fought series against the Knicks. It wasn’t always pretty, there weren’t many points scored, and lots of bruises were collected, but the Heat managed to hold onto this Game 6 win against the New York Knicks, 96-92, and advance to the Eastern Conference finals.
The Heat, only the second No. 8 seed to ever play in the conference finals, will play for a chance to reach the championship round for the third time in four seasons.
“It’s really freaking hard to make the Eastern Conference finals,” Spoelstra said.
Jimmy Butler led the Heat on Friday night with 24 points on 7 of 22 shooting, eight rebounds and four assists. Bam Adebayo stepped into a No. 2 scoring role, tallying 23 points on 9 for 20 shooting to go along with his nine rebounds, two steals and blocked shot. Even though the efficiency wasn’t there, it’s a testament to Butler and Adebayo to even attempt 42 combined shots against an aggressive Knicks defense keyed in on getting the ball out of their hands.
In total, the Heat shot just 40.2% overall and 25.9% (7 of 27) from 3-point range. This was not a night of offensive proficiency on either end. Rather, both teams buckled in for a physical game to punctuate what had been a physical series, which ends 3-2 Miami’s way.
The Heat did it by narrowing the rebounding margin to one (41-40 to the Knicks), limiting turnovers (just seven) and working the ball into the paint, where they outscored the Knicks 38-20.
That the most important plays in the fourth quarter were a tough Lowry layup through contact, steal of RJ Barrett and a rebound in traffic by Adebayo speaks to how this final game was played.
Here’s the Lowry layup. Out of a pick-and-roll with Adebayo, Lowry pivots around Knicks 7-footer Mitchell Robinson, drop steps toward the basket and lays it in. Vintage Lowry stuff.
Then, up five, the Heat double Jalen Brunson to get the ball out of his hands. He passes to RJ Barrett who drives baseline. Lowry pokes the ball free and preserves the lead with 2 1/2 minutes remaining.
Then, up six, Adebayo battles Robinson and Julius Randle for a defensive rebound after a Josh Hart missed 3 to end the possession.
“Spo always talks about grown-man rebounds,” Adebayo said. “I gave him a couple of them tonight.”
With less than a minute to go and a six-point lead, the Heat were making all the big plays and were on their way to a win before Vincent was whistled for a flagrant 1 for an accidental hit to Brunson’s head. Brunson sunk two free throws and the Knicks retained possession. Brunson then found Hart for a cutting layup to complete the four-point possession and cut the Heat’s lead to two. Butler missed a 16-footer that could have been the dagger. Then, on the next Knicks possession, Brunson had the ball up high with a chance to make one last tough shot.
Brunson was the best player on the court the last two games. He finished with 41 points on 14 of 22 shooting in 45 minutes on Friday. He had 38 points in 48 minutes to stave off elimination on Wednesday. Somehow, he appeared to gain strength as everybody else wore down. He broke through double-teams, made impossible shot after impossible shot, drew contact and got to the foul line nine times in this one.
“I wish he was still out West,” Spoelstra said. “He’s an incredible competitor.”
Brunson drove against Butler and made it to the baseline when Max Strus came over to double. Brunson picked up his dribble and tried to squeeze a pass to a cutting Randle. Vincent jumps in front of Randle to muck up the action, Lowry picks up the loose ball and the game is essentially over at that point.
Of the biggest plays of the game, most were, fittingly, defensive stops and grabbed loose balls. The Heat were the better team, but they had to fight for everything in this series.
On Friday, the Knicks got out to an early 14-point lead in the first quarter before the Heat clawed back and took a 51-50 lead into halftime. They couldn’t get a shot to fall from the perimeter but that had been the case all series (30.6% on 3s for the series). The winning formula was creating more possessions with rebounds and forced turnovers, and converting needed shots in the paint.
That formula evaded the Heat in Game 5’s could-be close-out game at Madison Square Garden, but they got back to it Friday at home in Kaseya Center.
“There has been nothing easy about this season and that proved to be true in this close-out game,” Spoelstra said. “That was an absolute grind. This series was everything we expected, incredibly competitive and physical.”
The Heat eliminated the top-seeded Bucks in the first round and the higher-seeded Knicks in this one. Against whoever they play in the Eastern Conference finals — the 76ers or Celtics — the Heat will enter as underdogs and start that series on the road.
“We’re one step closer to our goal,” Butler said. “We’ve got eight more to get. I am so so proud of all of my guys for playing as hard as we did today.”