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NBA playoffs: Knicks dig deep, get offense going to even East semifinal against Heat

NEW YORK — You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the Miami Heat don’t get better without Jimmy Butler. They do, however, get different when they’re without him — as they were for Game 2, with Butler sidelined by the nasty ankle sprain he suffered Sunday — and those differences created problems for the New York Knicks early and often Tuesday night.

Without its best man-to-man perimeter stopper, Erik Spoelstra dialed up a zone on 49 of Miami’s defensive possessions, according to Second Spectrum — up from just seven in Game 1. Without its best isolation scorer, pick-and-roll ballhandler, off-ball mover, free-throw generator and wide receiver for Kevin Love’s outlet passes, Miami cranked up the random number generator, firing up 49 3-pointers — the second-highest single-game total in the franchise’s postseason history — trying to push the math problem that helped them win Game 1 to the extreme, in hopes of generating enough points to make up for the loss of their best player (and arguably the best player in this 2023 NBA postseason thus far).

“It’s smart,” Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said after the game. “When you have guys go out, OK, everyone does something well. … I give them a lot of credit. That was their best chance to win the game, and they played a smart game.”

It damn near worked, too. After Game 1 hero Gabe Vincent managed to wriggle free of a Knicks trap and sling a cross-court pass, swingman Caleb Martin — who started in place of Butler and scored a career-playoff-high 22 points with 8 rebounds and an assist — drilled a triple that put Miami up seven with just over seven minutes to go.

The shot prompted a Knicks timeout, and all manner of existential dread among the faithful in the stands at Madison Square Garden. If New York couldn’t find some answers in the next seven minutes, all those good vibes from the five-game rout of the Cavaliers would go up in smoke, lost to history in the face of the enervating potential of facing elimination in South Beach.

The Knicks would find answers in the same places they did against Cleveland, in the same place that nearly every Thibodeau team seems to; the magic, as ever, is in the work.

New York came out of the timeout and ripped off a 14-3 run, fueled by a finally back-in-rhythm Jalen Brunson, a back-from-his-own-ankle-injury Julius Randle and relentless work on the offensive glass. One sequence with just over five minutes to go included four offensive rebounds, as well as two loose ball fouls forced by Isaiah Hartenstein’s energy; Spoelstra later said it “felt like a four-minute possession,” and it ended with a corner 3 by Josh Hart that tied the game at 96.

Later, with Miami trailing by four and just under 90 seconds remaining, Hart missed a good look at another corner 3 but followed his own miss, soaring in to grab the ball and put it back up; when that missed, in flew Randle, grabbing the carom and drawing a foul to go to the line for two free throws that would prove to be the winners in a 111-105 victory that knotted this Eastern Conference semifinal at one game apiece.

“I think we did everything we needed to do to give ourselves a chance to win on the road,” Spoelstra told reporters after the game. “But you do have to credit New York. When it becomes those moments of truth, you have to make plays. We did make some plays, but they made more of the ‘ball in the air,’ ‘ball on the floor’ plays that really ended up deciding the game.”

The Knicks needed all of those crunch-time hustle plays to outlast a Miami side that continued its remarkable transformation from a gang that couldn’t shoot straight to a squad full of sharpshooters as soon as mid-April hit.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 02:  Jalen Brunson #11 of the New York Knicks heads for the net as Bam Adebayo #13 and Max Strus #31 of the Miami Heat defend in the fourth quarter during game two of the Eastern Conference Semifinals at Madison Square Garden on May 02, 2023 in New York City. The New York Knicks defeated the Miami Heat 111-105. 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 Elsa/Getty Images)

“They hadn’t necessarily shot the ball well during the regular season, but ever since the postseason started, they’ve been lights out,” Randle said of a Heat team that shot 34.4% from 3-point range for six months but has shot a blistering 41.3% in the playoffs. “Those guys are great players, whether Jimmy’s on the floor or not. You have to account for them. They make tough shots, and they made some tough ones tonight.”

After shooting 13-for-39 in their Game 1 win, the Heat went 17-for-49 from deep in Game 2, with Vincent (4-for-12 from deep), Martin (4-for-8), Max Strus (3-for-7), Duncan Robinson (3-for-8) and Kevin Love (2-for-8) all making multiple triples. The combination of their floor spacing, quick-trigger releases, off-ball activity and willingness to share the rock — a team postseason-high 24 assists on 38 made baskets — repeatedly terrorized New York’s perimeter defenders, and gave the Heat the puncher’s chance they needed. Without its top two facilitators in Butler and the injured Tyler Herro, Miami scored at a clip of 119.3 points per 100 possessions in Game 2 — a mark that would’ve finished just behind the Kings for the league’s best offense during the regular season.

“What they were doing all game, it's hard to guard, and we just have to do a better job with it throughout the entire game,” Brunson said. “But of course, at the end, we made a couple more plays than they did and came up with the win.”

The Knicks were able to do so in large part because they got their own offense unstuck.

Thibodeau and several Knicks players had emphasized that Game 1 was a one-possession contest with four minutes to go, and that New York had a chance to win that game despite going a dismal 7-for-34 from long distance. Get some of those wide-open shots to fall, and maybe Game 2 could be different. The Knicks came out firing, making five triples in the first quarter and finishing 16-for-40 from deep — by far their best long-distance outing of this postseason.

“It’s the same thing we said to all the guys: If you're open, shoot,” Thibodeau said after the game. “We went through an entire regular season. We know you can shoot. Don’t question yourself. Shoot the ball. You're not going to make every one, right? So, as long as you shoot it well and you're open, there’s not going to be a problem.”

One big reason there wasn’t a problem? The return of Randle, who was brilliant offensively in his return from a reaggravated ankle sprain, scoring 25 points on 8-for-18 shooting to go with 12 rebounds and 8 assists in 38 tough-as-nails minutes.

The All-Star power forward gave New York another downhill driver, pick-and-roll facilitator, spot-up finisher and all-around playmaker it lacked in Game 1. With Brunson still struggling early on Tuesday, Randle and R.J. Barrett kept the Knicks' offense afloat with drive-and-kick initiation to create better looks from 3-point land and tough finishes on the interior. Randle's still not 100%, as evidenced by his lateral movement at times on defense, but he “gutted it out,” as Thibodeau put it, after undergoing what Randle described as grueling rehab to get back onto the floor.

“It was hell,” he said. “Every day, around the clock, just trying to get my body right. I don’t have a problem doing the work. Mentally, it’s a grind, but like I said, I just wanted to make myself available for the team. Whatever I can give to try to help us get a win, that’s what matters.”

Randle and Barrett carrying the load in the first half allowed New York to survive a 1-for-6 start for Brunson, who’d been a game-time decision with an ankle injury of his own that he said started to bother him at the end of Game 1. After intermission, though, the Knicks' table-setter and tone-setter started to find his rhythm, knocking down three 3s en route to 13 points in the third quarter before adding 10 critical points in the fourth — headlined by a pull-up 3 around a Hartenstein screen that put the Knicks up by three with just over four minutes to go.

A minute later, Brunson would add a floater out of the pick-and-roll to push the lead to five and give him 30 points, making him the first Knick to post a 30-point playoff game at MSG since Carmelo Anthony — who was in attendance Tuesday and was feted like a franchise legend — did it back in 2013. More pressingly, though, it gave New York a lead it would not relinquish.

“JB’s been making plays all year — that’s what he does,” Randle said. “He’s not afraid of the moment, and we’ve come to expect that from him.”

And yet: Even with Brunson bouncing back to play up to those expectations, Randle starring in his return, Barrett chipping in 24 points with five 3s before giving way to Quentin Grimes late as Thibodeau searched for a combination of defensive answers and shooting to salt away the game, and Hart turning in yet another stat-sheet-stuffing performance (14 points, 11 rebounds, 9 assists, a steal, some great work slicing into open spaces in Miami’s zone), the Knicks still had to sweat out a final-minute victory over a team without its best player.

A player, by the way, who may well have suited up for Game 2 had the Heat not, as Spoelstra said before the game, “run out of time” in his treatment … and who probably won’t be wearing street clothes come Saturday’s Game 3.

“His body will let you know, him know, me know, the team know,” Spoelstra said after the game. “There’s no way to predict it. But I’m glad we have a couple of extra days.”

“I'll say this: The Heat have a known culture of how they play, and who they are, and what they're about, what their philosophies are, and all that stuff,” Brunson said. “So, while they're down a big-time player like that, they still play with the same mentality, same physicality, same attitude. Adding him back just makes them tougher. It's going to be a challenge.”

That challenge is a bit easier to face, though, when you’re sitting at 1-1 instead of down 2-0, when you got your offense on track — Hartenstein said after the game that he felt the Knicks figured out the right screening angles and ways to flip their screens to find answers to Miami’s zone — and when you’ve got your full complement of dudes back, too.

Knicks-Heat probably won’t win any beauty contests, but “if you’re a basketball aficionado, you’ve got to love this series,” Spoelstra said, likening it to “a gladiator battle.” The return of Miami’s most decorated warrior looms large. But as of Tuesday, the Knicks are back in the fight.