How did the New York Knicks, who missed the playoffs last season, and the Miami Heat, who advanced to the postseason through the Play-In tournament this season, set up a rematch of their 1990s blood feud?
This second-round Eastern Conference series (Game 1 is Sunday at 1 p.m. ET, ABC) brings back memories of the late 1990s brawls between Pat Riley’s Heat and Jeff Van Gundy’s Knicks, led by Hall of Fame centers and former Georgetown Hoyas Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning.
Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau was an assistant to Van Gundy from 1996-2003 and knows all about the bad blood that exists between these two franchises. Riley is still with the Heat as the franchise’s president after serving as the team’s coach, which included their 2006 NBA championship. Of course, he was also the architect of the “Heatles,” the superteam he created that featured Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
But this revived rivalry is about the older, play-off-tested Heat going to war against the young and deep Knicks.
The Heat finished No. 8 in the East during the regular season, then had to play twice in the Play-In tournament before eventually securing the No. 8 playoff seed. But they were always the underdog no one wanted to face.
They made the Finals in NBA Bubble season of 2020 and the Eastern Conference finals last season after getting swept in the first round by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2021.
But they are back with a vengeance after shocking the No. 1 overall seed and presumptive NBA title favorite Bucks in a gentlemen’s sweep. It’s even more of a shock to the system that they did so without their third and fifth leading scorers, Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo. Herro is out until the Finals with a broken hand, while there is fear Oladipo may never play again after suffering a torn patellar tendon in his left knee.
It has been the Jimmy Butler show, as the veteran has once again put the Heat on his back to deliver back-to-back historic playoff performances. In Game 4, he dropped 56 points, good for the single greatest playoff game of any Miami Heat player. Butler’s Game 4 performance wasn’t just a Heat playoff record for scoring but also tied the 4th-highest scoring total in NBA playoff history, per ESPN Stats.
For the Heat to even be here, it took everything Butler had to give. In Game 5, he dropped 42 points, eight rebounds, and hit the biggest shot of the series on an out-of-bounds play, catching a lob from Gabe Vincent and floating in an improbable shot, falling to the court to tie the game and sending it to overtime. The Heat closed the series with a 128-126 victory, embarrassing the Bucks and proving to the world “Playoff Jimmy” is a thing — even if Butler hates the moniker.
Against the New York Knicks, they likely will need more than just Jimmy Buckets. Bam Adebayo had a crucial triple-double (20 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) in Game 5. The Heat’s supporting cast is built out of undrafted gems in Caleb Martin, Max Strus, Duncan Robinson, and Vincent. Finding unsung talent that fits Heat culture is one of Riley’s strengths, while getting the most of them has been Heat coach Erik Spoelstra’s claim to fame.
“Heat culture” has been belittled, but appears to be a very real thing, and is at the core of the team’s next man up mentality. Perhaps no player before, not even Alonzo Mourning or Wade embodies what Riley envisioned his team to represent.
How the New York Knicks got to this point
For the New York Knicks, President of Basketball Operations Leon Rose, had a season of moves worthy of Executive of the Year. The free agent signings of Jalen Brunson and Isaiah Hartenstein filled the team’s two biggest needs at point guard and backup center. Then by adding Josh Hart in a deadline fleece of the Portland Trailblazers, he took the Knicks to another level. Thibodeau’s nine-man rotation could be the deepest and most talented in the Eastern Conference, and his decision to tighten the rotation saved the season and his job while putting the Knicks on track to get out of the first round for the first time since 2013.
But the Knicks’ ascension is also about the level of development and buy-in Thibodeau has imparted to his main players. Mitchell Robinson bodied both Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley on his own, cementing him as a top-five center in the league. Meanwhile, RJ Barrett finally looked like the player the Knicks brass hoped they were getting when they drafted him third in 2019. Immanuel Quickley, Quentin Grimes, and Obi Toppin have taken huge steps forward this season, while still holding much potential and promise.
The New York Knicks’ 19th-rated defense during the regular season was deceiving, because it factored in the two months of losing basketball they played earlier in the season with Cam Reddish and Evan Fournier in the starting lineup. They currently sit first in defensive rating in the playoffs, thanks to the suffocating defense of Hart and Quickley, who is the top rated on-ball defender in the postseason. This has helped the Knicks achieve the fourth rated net rating, one spot above the Miami Heat.
By demonstrating a willingness to adapt his game plan in order to secure victories, Thibodeau has shed the arrogance and ego that made some regard him as just a great regular-season coach. Although his supporters often laud his .572 winning percentage, they tend to overlook his .410 playoff winning percentage. The series win against the Cleveland Cavaliers marked only the second time a Thibodeau-coached team defeated a higher-seeded team.
This next round will be a faceoff between the two of the best coaches in the Eastern Conference, and two teams trending in opposite directions. The Knicks are the third youngest team in the playoffs, the Heat are now the oldest with the Bucks eliminated. At 33 and surrounded by a limited, injured, and aging roster, this might be Butler’s last chance in Miami. Their cap is burdened with bloated contracts, but you always have a chance with Jimmy Buckets. But as the Bucks/Heat series showed, they are the definition of a one-man team.
For the Knicks part, they lack playoff success outside of Brunson. The young core is green, and Quickley and Grimes looked rattled at times against Cleveland. Julius Randle must be available and healthy enough to impact on both ends for the Knicks to have a shot. Adebayo is too athletic, strong, and experienced for Toppin this series.
The Miami Heat will have the best player on the floor all series, while the New York Knicks may have the better team.
Lee Escobedo covers the NBA for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @_leeescobedo