In the first round, the Knicks won a contested Game 1 on the road. The higher seed evened the series with a mostly-must-win Game 2; then the series changed venues, the Knicks mostly dominated the next two games, asserted their superiority and put the Cavaliers to the sword in Game 5 — and if they hadn’t won then, they surely would’ve in Game 6.
In the second round, the Heat won a contested Game 1 on the road. The higher seed tied the series with a mostly-must-win Game 2; then the series changed venues. The Heat dominated Game 3 Saturday, winning 105-86. If the Knicks don’t turn things around in Game 4, they’re going to lose the series Wednesday in New York — if not then, surely in Game 6 in South Beach.
Are the Knicks the new Cavs? In many ways, thankfully not. Cleveland traded a ton of players and picks last summer to make themselves something closer to contenders than not. New York continued to collect players and picks as part of a multi-year process building themselves up from squalid to solid. The two teams took different paths on different journeys, with the Knicks coming out ahead at this point of the process.
As was the case with the Cavaliers, the Knicks have seen their two leading scorers struggle in this series, and just as the Cavs youngest star offered some signs of hope for the farther future, RJ Barrett has been one of Gotham’s no-longer-a-teen titans. The Cav bench existed in name only, like one of the many NYC neighborhoods lost in time (shout out, San Juan Hill!). The Knick bench, such a strength the past three seasons, may be hitting a wall; they have little to no playoff experience and are pushing their bodies longer than they ever have, against a level of competition they’ve never seen.
You wanna dismiss the Heat? The no-names? I’ve heard a lot of that during this series. Couldn’t be me. If you didn’t already know what Gabe Vincent, Caleb Martin and (sighs deeply) Cody Zeller could do, you should by now. A team that has Kyle Lowry coming off the bench in January is whatevs. A team with him on their bench in May? That’s like getting into a fight with a switchblade samurai. No matter how it ends, you’re not gonna enjoy it.
The Knicks exposed a weakness in the Cavaliers that wouldn’t register after playing nearly half of an 82-game schedule against lottery teams. Cleveland lacked shot creators. That’s weird to say, given their All-Star backcourt, but again, “All-Star” is a regular-season designation. When I was 16 I worked at a K-Mart where four girls all liked me at once. To that point in life, I don’t think four people total had ever liked me. Had I blossomed into a DiCaprio-ish flower? Reader, I had not. I was six feet tall, 140 pounds with size 15 shoes and a thicker mustache than most dads. It was just that a lot of the girls who worked in there came from a much smaller town out east. Slim pickings. You have to recognize where your strengths play and where they don’t. Cleveland’s whole offseason branches out from there.
The Heat have exposed weaknesses in the Knicks that we weren’t going to see in a one-shot against Detroit or Washington. The Knicks are not a good shooting team. They have players who can get hot; I can’t prove this, but I’m certain they set a franchise record for the number of players who scored 40+ in a game in one season (Jalen Brunson; Julius Randle; RJ Barrett; Immanuel Quickley . . . am I forgetting someone? Feels like I am). And yet, you see that when a team does to the Knicks what they do to teams — wall off the paint and dare them to win the game from the perimeter — the offense’s engines start seizing up, and once they start to struggle other parts fall off completely.
Quickley is taking a lot of shots just a tad quicker than usual; that makes a difference. Grimes has been rushing them all year. Miami knows Randle won’t take any shot that’s not behind the arc or in the paint, so as long as they don’t give him rhythm looks from deep — they haven’t — he’s either forcing up tough 3s or looking to drive, in which case the defender knows they don’t have to contest anything until he’s in the restricted area, by which point there’s often help coming from somewhere. The centers can’t shoot. When Jalen Brunson gets up at 3 a.m. to pee, there are defenders on either side of his toilet. Yes, every point in this paragraph is about the Knicks’ shooting. Shooting is important.
The Cavs made a single adjustment in Game 2 of their series; after that, bupkis. Does Tom Thibodeau drag something new out of the barn? I think he might. There were multiple times this season he surprised us by deviating from his Old Testament; he even dusted off one of those blasphemies late in Game 3, playing Randle and Obi Toppin together. It may have been too little, too late, but it did lead Erik Spoelstra to call timeout a couple times to interrupt a Knick run, which is two more than he had to the rest of the game. Or, Thibs might consider altering his depth chart completely.
Josh Hart becoming this untouchable rotation piece has destroyed the Knicks. Now Thibs feels like he has ONE position for RJ Grimes and Quickley to share. That’s absolutely insane. Hart is a nice role player, but there’s a reason we got him for a protected FRP. 20 minute 1h lmao.— Frank Barrett (@FrankBarrett119) May 6, 2023
Quoth MelleMehl: “This is not going well lol.” Make no mistake: this was an absolutely disgusting game to watch. The Knicks were down eight after one, nearly 20 a few minutes into the second, and they never mounted a serious comeback. But MelleMehl’s “lol” is what I focus on. The Knicks are learning the rules and practices of a competition they have limited experience with, at a level they haven’t seen before. They’re young. They need time. Whether they have it is something nobody knows. But struggles like this game? That feeling? That’s what growth feels like. The team is getting a crash course in what it takes to be one of the last four teams.
There’s no shame in losing to Miami — but also no need to concede defeat. A win Monday evens the series at 2-2, returns homecourt advantage to the Knicks and puts them two wins from the conference finals. New York was one of the league’s top road teams this season and won twice in Cleveland. They already proved they’re better than the Cavs once. Here’s hoping they do it again.