Despite Jalen Brunson‘s heroics- scoring 41 points on the road, the Knicks succumbed to the Miami Heat in this Semifinal matchup over six games. Thus, this tremendous season for the New York Knicks ends with plenty of hope for the future whilst pondering a genuine missed opportunity. Riding high after disposing of Donovan Mitchell’s Cleveland Cavaliers in a gentleman’s sweep, yet ran into a Heat team boasting battle-hardened veterans. In Jimmy Butler, Miami boasts a man who shines brightest when the pressure is most intense. Furthermore, Erik Spoelstra is the best Head Coach working in the NBA today. All those factors played a crucial role in defeating the Knicks. Miami is the first team in over 20 years to make the Conference Finals as an eighth seed.
The Knicks did themselves proud this season, proving prognosticators wrong while also proving they have a sound foundation to build on. Despite this, the Knicks struggled in this series, so let’s analyze the factors.
Three Key Reasons the Knicks Lost to the Heat
1. Coaching Disparity- An Erik Spoelstra Clinic
Perhaps the greatest disparity between the two sides was on the sidelines. This is no disrespect to Tom Thibodeau, whom I greatly respect as an excellent coach. He’s done a superb job with this Knicks team all season. They play extremely hard for him. His team embodied the culture of the city and a historic franchise.
However, this was not a well-coached series from Thibodeau. Meanwhile, Erik Spoelstra for Miami put on a coaching clinic and out-schemed the Knicks at every turn.
First, he schemed creative ways to get their main man Jimmy Butler open. Spoelstra also adjusted to everything the Knicks did- any momentum was foreshadowed and snuffed out each game. For instance, in the series’ first game, he packed the paint and turned to a zone defense to force the Knicks into three-point shots. The Knicks’ main weakness this year is beating the zone defense.
He went full-court press on the Knicks ball-handlers down the stretch in games. Forcing turnovers and always seemed to have two to three men around Brunson at all times. Meanwhile, Bam Adebayo completely shut down Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson in this series. When Randle had the ball in the paint, he was double-teamed, forcing bad shots or passing to ice-cold shooters.
Spoelstra simply beat the Knicks at their own game, forcing Thibodeau into playing the way the Heat wanted—a tough, slow, half-court game. New York unwittingly obliged.
Tom Thibodeau Played Into the Heat’s Hands
Thibs made key mistakes in this series. For instance, in Game 6, he sat Brunson for a three-minute stretch when they were leading, including sitting co-star Julius Randle at the same time. ‘Deuce’ McBride was the primary ball-handler for that stretch, a role he didn’t perform during the regular season. Also, one of the only sightings we had of McBride in the playoffs.
Consequently, he looked overmatched, and RJ Barrett forced poor shots as no shot-creators were on the court. That three-minute stretch gave the Heat an 8-0 run changing the momentum of the game.
It was obvious in multiple games this series that the Knicks needed someone to stretch the floor to break the Heat’s zone defense. However, Thibs played into the Heat’s hands by going back to his favored rotations. With only Brunson as any threat from the perimeter spaces on the court were scarce. Hart is more of a slasher, as are RJ and Randle. Mitch Robinson has no offensive game whatsoever.
With Quickley hurt, instead of expanding his rotation and giving a look at Evan Fournier (paid handsomely to be in street clothes,) he chose to ride it out with a short unproductive bench. I understand Fournier has had a bad season. I also understand he’s a liability defensively. However, he’s been in the playoffs multiple times in his career, averaging 15 points per game in the 2020 postseason for Boston. Perhaps he could have knocked down a few threes for a ten-minute stretch to keep the Heat’s zone defense honest.
If Spoelstra could trust Duncan Robinson, there’s no real excuse for Thibs not to consider Fournier. The Heat’s larger bench rotations and the Knicks’ shrinking rotation helped Miami.
Another costly mistake from Thibs was doubling Jimmy Butler. Every time he did so, it opened the court for the Heat shooters, leading to the Knicks chasing shadows. It didn’t make sense to double Butler when he’s one of those players who will do whatever is asked of him to succeed on that day.
Three Key Reasons the Knicks Lost to the Heat:
2. No Help for the Warrior Brunson
First off, Jalen Brunson is a superstar. There is no question that he was robbed of an All-Star spot. He was the Knicks’ offense the entire series and basically the entire season. He had more field goals (14) in Game 6 than the rest of the Knicks combined (13). Scoring 41 of the Knicks’ 92 points.
In their Game 5 victory, Brunson again was their offense. Scoring 38 and playing the entire game. Brunson became the first Knick since Patrick Ewing to score 30 points or more in three consecutive playoff games. He’s their future.
Despite his heroics, it wasn’t enough. Julius Randle had a rough series- especially in Game 6, where he shot 20% from the field and 14% from three-point range. His second game of the series, shooting 20%. Not acceptable for a player who made the All-NBA team this season.
The ever-reliable glue guy Josh Hart disappeared offensively in this series. Scoring four points in Game 4 and a meager two points in Game 5.
Quentin Grimes was largely anonymous in this series. Going 1-6 from the field in the decisive Game 6. Averaging just five points per game. In fairness to Grimes, he didn’t take many shots, but he could have done a better job of being more aggressive.
The Knicks got zero offense from Mitchell Robinson at the Center position, and he was even worse from the free-throw line.
The only consistent offense apart from Brunson came from RJ Barrett, who had a strong series with four games of 20 points or more. Yet in the pivotal Game 6, he was a miserable 1-10 from the field.
Three Key Reasons the Knicks Lost to the Heat:
3. Heat Beat the Knicks at Their Own Game
The Knicks bench, vital to their successes- got outscored 99-38 in the final three games of the series. Desperately missing their second ball-handler Immanuel Quickley in the final few games. That being said, he was also poor in the games he did play in the playoffs this year.
As illustrated earlier, Spoelstra cultivated a true team spirit this year. He developed un-heralded players into their system and got production from everyone on their roster. For instance, Gabe Vincent provided quality minutes for the Heat as the starting Point Guard. A guy Signed from the G-League a few seasons ago. In this series, Vincent helped in various ways: 20 points in Game 1 and averaged five assists in this series. He also showed his defensive tenacity to rotate and read the pass by Brunson to Randle in the final seconds. Forcing it out of Randle’s hands for the series-winning turnover.
He embodies the Heats mantra. They played with desperation to succeed, worked as a team, and they played with poise. I didn’t see the same from the Knicks apart from Brunson in this series.
Another calling card of the Knicks is their rebounding and their ability to get out in transition. Yet in Game 3, the Knicks were outrebounded 50-48, and the pivotal Game 4 beaten on the glass 44-35. In both those games, the Heat had more fastbreak points. Overall, in the series, they matched the Knicks in all areas they excelled in, like in the paint, and beat them at their weaknesses.
This ties in with the disappointing series of the Knicks center Mitchell Robinson. As one of the top rim-protectors and offensive rebounders in the league, there was much responsibility on his shoulders to match up with perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Bam Adebayo. Frankly, Mitch got taken to school the entire series. He averaged only under a block per game. Plus only eight rebounds per game. Averaging just five points and 40% from the free throw line also. His line drive free throws often missed the net entirely.
On the other hand- Bam Adebayo averaged around 19 points per game and 10 rebounds. Quite a stark difference.
Overall Series Thoughts: The Heat Were a Better Team in the Most Important Sense of the Word
Julius Randle raised a lot of eyebrows when he said, after falling behind 3-1 in the series, that the Heat perhaps ‘wanted it more.’ Although fans of New York probably would have preferred not to have heard that from their All-Star forward. Yet, it sounds brutally honest. Miami played as a team on both sides of the ball. They rotated excellently, boxed the Knicks out in the paint, and stopped Knicks’ fast breaks with ease. They were well drilled, and each Heat, to a man, knew their roles and executed them. It felt like the Heat did what the Knicks like to do, but better.
Much of the credit for this series has to go to Erik Spoelstra. He said of his team: “We found beauty in the struggle. We’ve had to find different solutions to win.” This quote really stood out because Spoelstra seemed prepared for every scenario. Every time the Knicks attempted to lay a glove on them, they read it easily and counter-punched like it was a Suger Ray Leonard fight.
The Knicks were frankly beaten by a better team. Not a better roster, but simply a better team, in the most important sense of the word. With that, Miami head to the Conference finals again, and the Knicks have some roster decisions to make moving forward.