Thursday’s game between the New York Knicks and Miami Heat was a battle of long-time rivals and two teams celebrating their forwards being named as All-Star reserves by NBA coaches. It is both the second selection for Bam Adebayo and Julius Randle, whose teams are separated by two games in the standings.
Before the game even started, many Knicks fans derided the snub of Jalen Brunson on the All-Star team, especially over Jrue Holiday. Brunson doesn't just average more points and assists than Holiday, but he also owns a way better win share (5.5 vs. 3.6) and win share/48 mins (.155 vs. .132). We weren’t gifted a Brunson revenge game, as the point guard was ruled out of the game due to a non-COVID illness.
While the Knicks and Heat were hated rivals during the late 90s and early 2000s, it was only briefly rekindled during the Carmelo Anthony era, leading to a first-round smacking of Melo’s Knicks by LeBron James Heat in the first round of the 2012 NBA Playoffs. But in the last few years, especially under Tom Thibodeau, both teams have been the poster boys for “mid,” that dreaded pejorative term describing a team too good for the Lottery and too bad for a deep playoff run.
With Brunson out, there was hope RJ Barrett would return to the form he showed (at least on offense) before last game’s un-ceremonial benching in the fourth and overtime quarters. Since returning from a strange finger injury on Jan. 12, he has been pretty good on offense, averaging 20.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 2.0 assists. But it's been his defense that’s been disgusting, with his defensive rating dropping to 125.8. In addition, he’s been lazy on rotations and showing poor decision-making on hedging, recovering, and rotating on perimeter switches.
No such luck for Barrett in the first half, who continued ill-suggested, unathletic drives to the basket, head down, unaware of his surroundings, leading to blocked shots, bricks, and turnovers (4-11 from the field, 0-4 from three, 10 points). Instead, it was Randle who was on a celebration tour, soaking up the love from Knicks fans for the bounce-back play this season that earned him his second All-Star nod (19 points, 8-16 from the field, 3-6 from three, five rebounds, three assists, and two steals.) Knicks led the Heat 51 - 48 at the half.
Nobody plays zone defense more than Eric Spoelstra’s Heat squad. Conversely, Thibs hasn't employed a zone once this season. The zone has become the go-to kryptonite coaches have used against Thibs' anemic offense. The Knicks chucked 22 threes in the first half, half of the team’s shots attempts, only connecting on seven of them. Thibs relies on a simplistic diet of isolation plays, pistol action, and dribble hands to get his guys going. This makes it incredibly difficult for his players to get easy buckets. Only those capable of three-level scoring regularly get their own shot. Hence, only Randle and Immanuel Quickley, who was starting in place of Brunson, had solid first halves (eight points, five rebounds, and three assists).
Speaking of Quickley, the bench could only manage a measly five points combined with him starting. Three of those five were from Evan Fournier, whose 11 points in the first half poured more salt on the wound of Cam Reddish's benching and more fuel to the fire of Knicks fans calling for Thibs head over the way he has handled Reddish, especially in light of the recent report. But on a positive note, Quickley defended the point of attack with ferocity, shutting down Kyle Lowry in every facet of the game (0 points, 0 assists, 0 rebounds, 0-5) in the first half. Quickley’s defense has been a revelation lately, making him an advanced metrics darling while leading the bench unit as the only dependable offensive weapon.
After a third quarter that saw the Knicks build a big lead and immediately blow it, RJ Barrett, Isiah Hartenstein, and Obi Toppin led a fourth-quarter resurgence. Toppin, who has seen a string of 10-minute games under Thibs, had seven in the first five minutes of the fourth, including a corner three and a turnaround mid-range shot! Thibs' usage of Toppin has been blatant disrespect to him as a player and man. Tonight, 60-year-old Udonis Haslem played more minutes than Toppin. Barrett, though, was fantastic at the start of the fourth, playing his way into forcing Thibs to keep him in the game. His drive and finger-roll off the glass to put the Knicks up four was one of the best lays of the season, especially coming off last game’s benching. Even better, it led to the Knicks having open shooters, as the Heat collapsed on Randle and Barrett, leaving Quentin Grimes open for three on the next possession. Why can’t the Knicks play free and pass-first all the time? Nothing is simple under Thibs.
Thibs really turned Obi into Channing Frye— Extend Thibs ⏸️ (@Funi0nz) February 3, 2023
Both Randle and Adebayo came to play. With Butler off his game, Adebayo was a monster, dropping 32 points and nine rebounds in a loss. And here’s the thing about this Knicks team. Every player is capable of magic from time to time. But under Thibs, it’s usually a team performing under duress and without a plan in crunch time.
The fourth quarter featured a renewed effort on defense, with Jericho Sims regulated to the bench in place of Hartenstein at the center. Hartenstein started the season awful, especially concerning rebounding and defense. But in the last few games, he has revealed layers in terms of secondary facilitation and flashing toward the basket. Part of this is the Knicks guards actively looking for him in the mid-range, letting him catch it closer to the basket, as opposed to around the three-point line, which he did in the fourth, leading to a gorgeous backdoor pass by Grimes to extend the lead.
Miami proved to be the perfect bounce-back team for Barrett, who seemed to take the matchup against Tyler Herro and Jimmy Butler personally, playing the most inspired defense of the last month in the fourth quarter. But it was on the offensive end where he thrived, not letting his 0-5 three-point shooting deter him from getting to the rim, which he did with ease against Miami’s small-ball line-up in crunch time.
Barrett scored 20 of his 30 points in the second half while logging 41 minutes. He also showed poise while leading the second unit of Miles McBride, Hartenstein, Toppin, and Evan Fournier. With the offense running through him, saw key plays from him as a scorer and passer, with McBride hitting a three, four points by Toppin, and even a putback by Barrett.
But Barrett’s bounce-back game and 30-piece were almost all for naught. With a minute left in the game, Barrett threw a horrible inbound pass that led to a steal by Adebayo and a foul down the court. One possession later, Barrett did the exact same thing, leading to another turnover. Thankfully, Hartenstein, Grimes, and Randle were able to reconfigure the offense and secure the win. Barrett giveth, and he taketh away. Tyler Herro bricked a three to win. Knicks win by two.
As P&T’er Ernard noted, there aren’t many things in life sweeter than beating the dastardly Heat. Treasure this feeling.