After a series of highly improbable events, we have arrived at a rare Eastern Conference semifinal matchup between the fifth-seeded New York Knicks and eighth-seeded Miami Heat.
This is far from the first time these two teams have done battle in the NBA playoffs, as the two franchises faced off in the postseason four years in a row from 1997-2000 – with the Knicks emerging victorious in three of those four encounters.
Who will win this go-around? (Stay tuned until the end to see what our playoff projection model thinks).
But first, here are five storylines to monitor during these conference semifinals.
1. The Elephant in the Room
If you followed the Heat’s first-round series against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, you’ve surely heard some iteration of this stat referenced already.
The Heat shot 45% from 3 for the series. For reference, the second-best postseason 3-point percentage belongs to the Phoenix Suns who shot 40.7% against the Los Angeles Clippers.
This type of shooting performance is incredibly atypical and highly unsustainable, especially considering the Heat only shot 34.4% from 3 during the regular season (27th in the NBA). What happens to this Miami offense when the 3s that were falling against Milwaukee stop going its way against New York?
Another thing to think about is that last season, with largely the same personnel, the Heat had the best 3-point shooting team in the league (37.9%). Maybe they have finally rediscovered that shooting from last year, and when they inevitably do regress, they regress down to that higher norm instead of the one from this year.
2. The Worst Part About Sports
Wouldn’t the real world be such a better place if it had the 2K setting that enabled you to turn injuries off? Once again, injuries have hindered what has otherwise been a spectacular and highly competitive postseason, and there’s a chance that they play a role in this series too.
Miami will already have to play this entire playoff series without Tyler Herro (second on the team in offensive DRIP) and Victor Oladipo, who was really starting to make his mark on the Milwaukee series before going down late in Game 3.
Meanwhile, the status of starters Julius Randle and Quentin Grimes for Game 1 at Madison Square Garden is still in flux. And even if they do play, there is no guarantee they will be as effective as they normally are. Randle especially looked hobbled throughout New York’s series against the Cleveland Cavaliers – posting a mere 14.4 points per game on 43.5% true shooting before re-injuring his ankle (the one that kept him out the last five games of the regular season) midway through Game 5.
3. Rebounding Is Cool Again
Believe it or not, the Cavs actually had a higher true shooting percentage than the Knicks during their first-round series (54.4% to 52.4%, respectively). True shooting measures how efficiently a player/team scores the basketball. So, if Cleveland was scoring more efficiently, why is it that New York had the higher offensive rating (101.9 to 107.3, respectively)? Two words: offensive rebounding.
The Knicks have managed to build an elite offense (fifth in our adjusted offensive rating metric) without scoring efficiently by creating more chances to score. They were second in the league in the regular season (31.8%) and first in the playoffs (39.4%) in offensive rebounding percentage. And they utterly destroyed Cleveland on the offensive glass – 75-46 in the series.
Despite Bam Adebayo’s efforts, one of the Heat’s biggest weaknesses is their interior size. They are second to last among all playoff teams in offensive rebounding (21.3%). This means that there’s a real chance that New York is able to have a repeat performance against Miami’s smaller frontline.
But Miami has a pitch it can throw confidently that Cleveland didn’t have: its zone defense. The Heat run more zone than anyone else in the league (per InStat), usually toggling between some configuration of a 2-3 and a 1-1-3. Regardless of which zone alignment they choose, both enable them to keep three bodies near the paint.
This should help accommodate for their lack of traditional size.
The drawback with running this type of zone is that you are leaving yourself vulnerable to 3-pointers, but this tradeoff is mitigated by the Knicks’ lack of perimeter shooting.
They are currently dead-last among playoff teams in 3-point percentage (28.2%).
4. Can Anyone Stop Jimmy Butler?
We know what you’re thinking: How on Earth could they take this long to mention Jimmy Butler?
Butler did some otherworldly things to the Bucks on the way to leading the Heat to the first series win by a play-in team. In the five games, he averaged 37.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.8 steals on 67.1% true shooting (86th percentile in the playoffs among players averaging at least 15 minutes).
Butler was spectacular in that series (as he always is in the playoffs). But he also benefited from Milwaukee’s reluctance to send additional defenders at him. For better or worse, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer decided it was better to contain actions to a 2-on-2 dance and dare one man to beat them on his lonesome than it was to send help and put their defense in a constant state of scrambling.
(Sidebar: Despite what many people think, it was actually a pretty good idea on the part of Budenholzer to avoid conceding advantages and force the Heat’s lackluster offense to beat them. It’s not his fault they decided to counter this tactic by shooting 45% from 3!)
New York may start the series trying to contain Butler’s actions like this. But if and when that proves untenable, it will likely transition to a more aggressive defensive scheme in order to force the ball out of Butler’s hands (in the playoffs, you generally try to hold off as long as you can before conceding an automatic advantage).
If this happens, it will be up to Butler’s dwindling supporting cast (man, it would have been nice to have Herro for this series) to make New York pay. Can they do it? That may just be the question that ultimately decides this chapter of Heat-Knicks.
5. And What About Brunson?
Despite not being the Knick who represented the team in the All-Star Game, Jalen Brunson is the team’s best player. He is first on the team in our catch-all DRIP metric with a plus-1.7. He lived up to his reputation in the first round, leading his team in scoring (24.0), assists (4.8) and steals (2.2). Brunson should, and will be, at the top of Miami’s defensive game plan.
Cleveland had success in Game 2 by trapping Brunson aggressively on ball screens, thereby forcing the ball out of his hands and daring his teammates to capitalize on a 4-on-3 advantage.
At first, New York struggled mightily to exchange these power plays into points. However, as the series progressed, the Knicks realized that by having guards/wings like Josh Hart and RJ Barrett set the screen for Brunson, they had a better chance of cashing in on their gift-wrapped advantage.
The reason is that Hart and Barrett are better decision-makers and drivers than guys like Mitchell Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein, so they were better equipped to operate in these short-roll situations.
We mentioned Miami having the zone it can throw at Brunson and the Knicks. But it is also worth pointing out that Miami’s defense is a lot better at trapping and rotating than Cleveland’s is, as its base regular-season defense is a lot more aggressive than the one the Cavaliers usually deployed.
Also, don’t forget what this same Miami defense was able to do to Trae Young last postseason.
What Does the Data Say?
In terms of the moneyline, sportsbooks have the Heat as underdogs (+180) and the home team Knicks as the betting favorites (-152). But what is our model’s prediction for who will advance to the conference finals?
This model calculates each team’s chances of making it to the semifinals, conference finals, NBA Finals and winning the title outright, based on 5,000 simulations of the playoffs.
It incorporates our adjusted team ratings (including overall adjusted team rating, adjusted offensive rating and adjusted defensive rating), accounts for recency bias (so, it gives more weight to teams that enter the second round playing well rather than those who stumbled through the first round) and for how well teams performed against other good teams (because in the playoffs you typically have to beat them).
Here are the model’s projections in real time. These will updated throughout the series:
Probabilities of Advancing to Each Round of the NBA Playoffs
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