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NBA playoffs: Heat beat Knicks at their own game to take 3-1 series lead

One of the few times the Knicks have looked like themselves in this second-round series came with just under six minutes to go in the fourth quarter of Game 2. Trailing by 3 points and staring into the abyss of a 2-0 hole, New York dug deep and began to impose its will on the Jimmy Butler-less Heat, pounding the paint during a trip that featured two offensive rebounds, two loose-ball fouls drawn and, eventually, a corner 3-pointer by Josh Hart that tied the game and changed the vibe inside Madison Square Garden.

Hart’s 3 capped off a hard-charging sequence that spanned 67 seconds of game time, but felt, in the words of Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, “like a four-minute possession.” It was the kind of physical, exacting extended play that New York made throughout the regular season en route to the NBA’s second-highest offensive rebound rate and third-most second-chance points and throughout its opening-round series win over the precocious Cavaliers in Round 1. The Knicks sprinted to the finish line from there, outscoring the Heat 18-9 over the final 4:45 to win Game 2 and tie the series as it headed back to Miami.

“The things that we take pride in — ball in the air, ball on the floor — they pretty much dominated that [in] those last six minutes,” Spoelstra said.

How fitting, then, for the Heat to send the series back to MSG, and the Knicks to within one loss of elimination, with several similar sequences. Miami’s taken just about everything else from New York over the past eight days — its momentum, its offensive efficiency, its defensive comportment. Why not its identity, too?

Miami could scarcely buy a bucket in the fourth quarter of Game 4 on Monday, shooting 6-for-23 from the field and missing all nine of its 3-point tries. It didn’t matter, though, because the Heat — who finished just outside the bottom 10 in offensive rebounding rate during the regular season, and who grabbed fewer than 20% of their own misses against Milwaukee in Round 1 — rebounded seven of those 17 final-frame misses, turning them into just enough second-chance points (7) to keep the Knicks at arm’s length and finish off a 109-101 win to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.

That the Heat now sit just one victory away from their third Eastern Conference finals berth in the last four years isn’t an outcome many predicted coming off a regular season that saw them win a modest 44 games with a 25th-ranked offense and a negative point differential. To hear Spoelstra tell it, though, all that time they spent struggling and searching for answers amid injuries and inconsistent play — the six months in which a title hopeful became an eighth seed, losing its first game in the play-in tournament before eking out its second — prepared them to hit their stride when it matters most.

“I think that we found the value in the grind of the regular season. … I’ve said that repeatedly: We found a beauty in that struggle,” Spoelstra said. “But without that struggle, [if] we didn’t have to find different solutions to win, and different guys stepping up so that they had the confidence for these kind of moments — if we didn’t have the regular season, then you have zero chance to be able to do that in the playoffs. There was nothing easy about this regular season, and there’s nothing easy about this postseason. But if you can come to grips with that, it can make you collectively stronger.”

It’s made the Heat the kind of team that can lose Tyler Herro to a broken right hand and Victor Oladipo to a torn patellar tendon and just keep going — rolling 10 deep in the second round of the playoffs, expecting good minutes from the likes of Cody Zeller, Haywood Highsmith and the long-mothballed Duncan Robinson and actually getting them. (Spoelstra rested both Butler and Bam Adebayo to start the second quarter, rolling with an all-reserve lineup; Miami extended its lead with the stars on the bench.) The kind that can walk into a white-hot Garden, dictate the terms of engagement, lose Butler to a nasty ankle sprain midway through the fourth quarter … and still steal home-court advantage.

The kind that, when necessary, can shape-shift into a zone-defense-and-high-volume-3s team at the drop of a hat and nearly steal a second game on the road. That can see its offense short-circuit and still grind out a win behind its best defensive performance of the season. And that can put the Knicks on the brink by hoisting them with their own petard, subjecting the visitors to the same fate New York visited upon Cleveland: a demoralizing defeat at the hands of a more physical, more poised and more professional opponent.

“Maybe they want it more,” said Knicks forward Julius Randle, who bounced back from a 4-for-15 outing in Game 3 with 20 points on 8-for-13 shooting but went scoreless in the fourth quarter before fouling out with just over three minutes to go. “I don't know. That's been who we are all year, and we've got to find a way to step up and make those plays if we want to keep this season alive."

That’s what had to be the most maddening part inside the visiting locker room — that the Knicks did enough good things to put themselves in position to get even, but they could just never get out of their own way long enough to get over the hump.

After watching his offense crater in Game 3 to the tune of 86 points on 34.1% shooting, New York coach Tom Thibodeau shuffled his starting lineup. He moved Josh Hart (shooting just 14-for-35 from the field through three games) back to the bench in favor of former starter Quentin Grimes in hopes that reintroducing the sophomore’s superior and quicker-trigger 3-point shooting into the lineup that helped transform New York’s season would open up things for playmakers Randle, Jalen Brunson and R.J. Barrett.

The gambit worked: New York scored 63 combined points on 67.6% shooting in the first and third quarters that heavily featured that lineup, repeatedly generating the paint touches and high-quality looks that Miami had so effectively eliminated in the previous two games. Despite scoring like gangbusters, though, that unit wound up a net-zero in its 23 minutes, thanks largely to an inability to prevent Miami from generating extra possessions on the offensive glass (that group gave up six of Miami’s 13 offensive rebounds) and via turnover (responsible for nine of New York’s 16 cough-ups), or from getting to the foul line (the Heat drew 11 fouls and took 13 free throws against that lineup).

All season long, the possession game provided the Knicks the margin for error that their lacking long-range shooting couldn’t afford. Down 2-1, Thibs and Brunson (32 points on 10-for-21 shooting, 11 assists against one turnover in 44 minutes) finally got the offense more or less unstuck; New York actually scored more points per possession in the half-court on Monday than Miami did, according to Cleaning the Glass. But with a chance to tie things up, the Knicks not only lost their bread-and-butter categories and got beat at their own game; they put themselves on the chopping block with miscue after miscue, giving a Heat team that didn’t need the help plenty of opportunities to lean on them.

It’s Randle taking a bad early shot-clock 3 that clangs clear and gets Max Strus a transition triple on the other end — a 6-point swing — and the passes outside the shooting pocket that turn clean catch-and-shoot looks into delayed contested attempts. It’s six missed free throws in an 8-point loss, especially the ones that immediately precede an and-1 bucket on the other end — a 5-point swing. It’s voluntarily setting the screen that puts their best perimeter defender on your No. 1 playmaker, resulting in a miss that turns into a transition 3 the other way — another 5-point swing.

It’s the rebounds you don’t squeeze, the empty trips that turn a one- or two-possession game back into a 10-point deficit, the lackadaisical closeouts and loss of focus off-ball that allows shooters to get free — death by a thousand cuts. And those cuts turn into gashes against an opponent capable of exploiting them.

Knowing Brunson’s working on a hobbled ankle and shouldering a massive shot-creation burden, the Heat forced him to work overtime everywhere they could: having Gabe Vincent pressure him full court, having whichever Miami wing he was guarding (often Strus or Robinson) run him off screens and around dribble-handoffs, etc. Knowing New York didn’t want Butler to carve them up one-on-one, the Heat waited for the Knicks to send aggressive help and beat them with the pass; Butler finished with 10 assists, the bulk of them coming after accepting the double and playing out of it.

"I actually love being double-teamed, because that just means one of my teammates is open,” said Butler, who also scored a team-high 27 points on 9-for-17 shooting with 6 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 steals in 42 brilliant minutes. “If I don't find them, somebody is going to find them … and I get to see if I can score over a double-team."

MIAMI, FL - MAY 08: Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat blocks a shot attempt by RJ Barrett #9 of the New York Knicks during Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals at Kaseya Center on May 08, 2023 in Miami, Florida. The Heat won the game 109-101. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,  by downloading and or using this photograph,  User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)

Butler can do that, and just about anything else Spoelstra might need over the course of a game, too; balky ankle or no, he’s capable of being the best player in any game he’s in. (Just ask LeBron, AD, Jayson Tatum and Giannis.) Adebayo can start the series committing primarily to keeping opening-round hero Mitchell Robinson off the offensive glass and then pivot to averaging 20 points and 12.5 boards of his own on 55% shooting in two wins, all while limiting Randle and guarding every other player in a Knick uniform at one point or another, too.

Spoelstra’s an ace tactician, forever ensuring that the Heat will pick any low-hanging fruit available to them and that they’ll lead the adjustments — like shuffling the defensive matchups in Game 3 to put Butler on Barrett and Vincent on Brunson — rather than needing to be reactive and having the terms of engagement dictated to them. He’s got the pieces to move around the board, too: For everything Herro provides as a pick-and-roll playmaker, his absence means Spoelstra can roll with a rotation that features no major defensive liabilities — even literal graybeard Kevin Love has been giving good effort when tasked with showing and recovering on high screens before backtracking to clear the defensive boards — and pretty much everybody besides Adebayo and Zeller is a legitimate threat to shoot from the perimeter, whether standing still or off movement.

It took 82 games of beauty in the struggle, but Spoelstra might have found himself a 16-game roster: a tough, tenacious and versatile group that nails the details, that’s unlikely to beat itself, and that can win in a lot of different ways. Including, as evidenced on Monday, the way you like to win.

“We’ve got a job to do,” Butler said after the game. “And I think we’re very capable.”