Few pundits picked the New York Knicks to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. (Sure, I did, but no one is giving me a locker room pass. . . .)
And yet, the Knicks won the series in a gentleman’s sweep.
Almost nobody picked the eighth-seeded Miami Heat to beat the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in their first round match-up.
Same result. The Heat won 3-1, another gentleman’s sweep.
Now, these two clubs–with an oft-told, acrimonious history between them–meet for round two. During the regular season, New York was the better team in both the standings and head-to-head match-ups. They bested the Heat three out of four tries. These games were not cake-walks, however. The contests were decided by an average of five points each, and two came down to single buckets. In those four affairs, New York averaged 112 points, the Heat averaged 111.
You don’t have to be Nostrodamus to predict a grind. This series could easily last all seven games.
Going by stats, New York should win. They had the league’s 19th-best defense this season and a top-five bench squad. Miami’s offense was ranked 25th and their bench were largely bums. But the Playoffs can be weird, folks. New York manhandled Cleveland (who had the league’s top defense) and held their offense to 13.5 points fewer than their season average. The Cavs looked justifiably bewildered, and the Knicks stood out as the best defenders of the Playoffs.
Gazing at you with love in my eyes, Josh Hart.
The Heat were similarly surprising. Their offense was near the bottom of the league during the season. Against the number one Milwaukee Bucks, the Heat averaged 124 points per game. And the Bucks have good defenders! Credit goes to Playoff Jimmy (Butler), without whom the Floridians would have been an afterthought. Butler averaged 37.6 points, six rebounds, and 4.8 assists in Round One, and averaged 49 points in the last two games to easily finish the Bucks and possibly force Mike Budenholzer into unemployment.
Give credit to Miami’s reserves, too. Somehow that ragtag bunch were the top-ranked bench of the first round. Back-up forward Caleb Martin averaged 11.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, and played significant minutes against the Bucks.
Comparisons to Jimmy Butler have followed RJ Barrett since he entered the league (drafted third, remember?). Amid growing criticism about his inconsistencies, Broadway Barrett responded to the moment with three consecutive gems in the Cleveland series. Finally, he got the memo. Rather than heaving rushed or contested shots, he used his muscular gifts to drive the lane and layup-at-will; when he met resistance, he made smart passes. We may have just seen a 22-year old caterpillar become a butterfly.
He and Jimmy will square off at times in the upcoming series, but expect coach Tom Thibodeau to throw a slew of containment attempts at Butler, his old protegé. Most likely, Thibs will run Barrett, Josh Hart, and/or Quentin Grimes at him depending on who’s fresh and effective, as well as traps, double-teams, etc. Pay attention young coaches, because Professor Thibs is about to empty out his defensive playbook for you.
How will Jimmy perform? Probably not much different than how he played against the Knicks during the regular season, in which he had two 33ish-point games and two 10ish-point games. It would be unrealistic not to expect a few Superman swings from the “psychotic” Butler. At 33 years old, he remains a world-class competitor. How the Knicks respond and control his Heat teammates will decide this series.
And make no mistake, this round will be won in the trenches and on the glass. Rebounding and defense will determine the outcome, yet again.
One of the Knicks’ top defenders, shooting guard Quentin Grimes, was sidelined by a shoulder contusion through most of the Cavs series. Signs are good that he will be active on Sunday. Could be rusty, though. Let’s hope for a couple of early three-pointers from QDot to bolster his confidence and get him into a rhythm.
Julius Randle is a different story. He sprained his ankle at the end of March and missed the final five regular season games while recovering. Randle struggled offensively in the Cleveland series, and Tom Thibodeau made vague comments that suggested his big power forward wasn’t 100% healthy. In Game 5, he re-sprained the ankle. Randle is a competitor who will ask to play no matter what. That’s admirable. However, he can be a liability on both ends of the floor when he’s hurting.
Obi Toppin to the rescue! 2022’s Slam Dunk Champion averaged 8.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 17.3 minutes in the Cleveland games. Obi was especially effective in relief of Julius in Game 5. Miami has a small frontcourt, and we have seen the Knicks play great small-ball in Julius’ absence this season. Until Randle is fully healthy, New York should let it fly with Obi. He will have no trouble pushing ol’ graybeard Kevin Love around.
Both of these clubs are capable of ice-cold, Garbage Pail Kids-worthy shooting, which stresses the imporance of rebounds. Thus, any eyes not trained on Jimmy Butler will probably be looking toward the centers.
Miami’s Bam Adebayo averaged 18.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 3.5 assists against the Knicks this year, but one of those games was a 32-point affair that Mitchell Robinson missed. (Jericho Sims started.) Truth be told, Big Mitch didn’t light any fires in his three games against the Heat this season, averaging only 6.3 rebounds, 4.7 points, and 1.7 blocks. The seven-foot Robinson’s performance against the Cavaliers was the stuff of legend, though. He baby-spanked the twin-tower frontcourt of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. MIami’s 6’9” Adebayo is a talented, versatile big man, but Playoff Mitch is something else. Advantage Knicks.
As for point guard? Miami will start Gabe Vincent. We have Jalen Brunson. You know the difference. Sniff yo’ hand!
Will this be another Gentleman’s Sweep? Nahhh. But I’d bet on Knicks in six. For Game One, DraftKings gives the moneyline as New York -180, the spread as -4, and the points total as 207.5. You know me, I bet literal dimes, but feel free to place a hefty wager on our heroes if you feel so inclined. They won’t let you down.
Go Knicks! Hit the music.
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