The New York Knicks’ loss to the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals wasn’t ideal, as it forfeited the Knicks’ home-court advantage.
But it also wasn’t overly concerning, as on paper, the two teams are pretty evenly matched, and New York was without All-Star forward Julius Randle.
What was concerning, though, was seeing the Knicks struggle to eke out a victory in Game 2 despite Randle’s return, the Heat not having Jimmy Butler in uniform, and the game being played (once again) at the famed Madison Square Garden.
What gives? Why are the Heat proving to be so tough to beat?
And most importantly, how can New York tweak its approach to gain some separation in the series and punch a ticket to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2000?
The Heat’s Gamble
The reason Miami was able to capture Game 1 and fight so admirably in Game 2 is due in large part to its defense. On the surface, the 114.0 defensive rating (fourth of eight teams in conference semifinals) the Heat have managed through these first two games may not seem like much.
But they have concocted the perfect antidote for slowing down the Knicks’ offense just enough for their offense to keep pace (Miami has a 115.8 offensive rating in the series).
In the first quarter of Game 1, New York was able to dominate the interior with 22 points in the paint and as a result, they held a 32-21 lead after the first stanza.
The Heat returned from the brief intermission ready to double down on the aggressive tactics that have defined their defensive philosophy over the last half-decade. They began bringing help early (so having off-ball defenders sag off their man and closer into the interior) in an attempt to pack the paint and deter New York from taking shots around/near the rim.
Since then, New York has only scored a combined 74 points in the paint over the last seven quarters of the series. For those of you not near a calculator, that’s an average of 10.6 points in the paint per quarter – a far cry from the 22 the Knicks dropped in the opening frame of Game 1.
The tradeoff to this approach is that if they can’t force the driver to turn the ball over or stall the possession, they leave themselves vulnerable to kick-out passes and relatively open 3-pointers that generally tend to follow those types of feeds.
But that double-edged blade dulls a bit for the Heat when they face a team like New York because the Knicks are not a good outside-shooting team. Of the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs, New York is dead-last in 3-point percentage – shooting just 29.1% from beyond the arc. Even with the less-contested looks they are getting against the Heat, they are still only converting on 31.1% of their 3s in the conference semifinals.
In Game 2, Miami junked things up even more – turning to its patented zone defense to throw a different look at New York that was still geared toward protecting the paint.
When they run it, the Heat typically turns to 1-1-3 or 2-3 alignment, which ensures that they always have at least three bodies on the backline to provide resistance against potential trespassers.
Of course, the zone also comes with a massive tradeoff of its own. But here’s the funny part: that tradeoff also is, you guessed it, that the coverage leads to a ton of open 3s for the opposition! So again, something the Knicks can’t really exploit!
More astute fans will think to themselves… Yeah, but basketball is not that simple. Yes, the Knicks are a bad shooting team, and yes, the Heat are crowding the paint, but the Knicks will find a wrinkle to counter it. They’ll show you! Just you wait!
Yes, knowledgeable fan, you are correct. Basketball is an incredibly complex and sophisticated dance. But every once in a while, it can be just that simple.
We alluded to it briefly earlier, but this isn’t some gimmicky ploy Miami came up with overnight. The Heat have spent countless years mastering their defensive principles and perfecting this wild style of play (I personally like to call it “Hyena Heat” mode).
During the regular season, Miami allowed the fourth-lowest number of opponent points in the paint per 100 possessions (47.4). The two years before that (2020-21 and 2021-22), the Heat were first in that category. The year before that (2019-20), they were fifth. And the year before that (2018-19), they were second.
In contrast, this year, they were 26th in opponent 3-point attempts per 100 (36.7). Last year (2021-22), they were 29th. The year before that (2020-21), they were 30th. The year before that (2019-20) 29th. And the year before that (2018-19), they were 28th.
The Heat have been trading layups for 3s for years. That might not always be the right approach, but it is certainly working in this series so far.
What Can the Knicks Do?
Six words – get more shooting on the floor.
Simple, right? The best way to counter a team that is daring you to shoot 3s is to put the personnel on the court who can make it pay. The next question becomes: How do they put more shooting on the court?
For all that they do bring to the table, neither Mitchell Robinson nor Isaiah Hartenstein are good outside shooters. So, that’s automatically one non-shooter the Knicks are playing at all times. But what if the Knicks move Randle (a serviceable 34.3% 3-point shooter) up to the center spot and slide in Quentin Grimes or Immanuel Quickley (depending on who is playing better at the time) alongside the other Knicks’ starters?
New York has experimented with Randle at the small-ball 5 before (4% of his minutes have come at center this season, per Basketball Reference). The Knicks even went to this configuration during the final minute of the first half of Game 2 (after Hartenstein picked up his third foul). But due to a combination of Robinson/Hartenstein’s wonderful production and head coach Tom Thibodeau’s (at times) archaic practices, that lineup has never really stuck.
Now, a theoretical small-ball lineup consisting of Randle, Josh Hart, RJ Barrett, Jalen Brunson and one of Grimes or Quickley comes with some drawbacks of its own. The main ones being the losses in offensive rebounding and interior defense the team would incur without one of its two bigs on the floor. But even these issues are mitigated in this matchup by the fact that Hart is such a great offensive rebounder for his position (he’s leading all guards with 2.1 offensive rebounds per game in these playoffs), and Miami has size issues of its own (22nd in points in the paint per 100).
We’re not even advocating for this to be a full-time lineup. The Knicks could just use it as an off-speed pitch to augment the potency of their fastball (their more traditional lineups). Just something to make the Heat pay for overhelping so much in the paint.
They need to try something, or before they know it, they could be on summer vacation. And the Heat could be the ones who are on their way to the Eastern Conference finals.
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