How’s this for parity? The series between the fifth-seed New York Knicks and eighth-seed Miami Heat marks the first time since 1994 that two lower seeds face each other in the second round of the NBA Playoffs when the fifth-seed Utah Jazz took on the eighth-seed Denver Nuggets.
That seven-game set pitted the legendary tandem of Karl Malone and John Stockton against the Dikembe Mutombo and the Nuggets who were the first team ever to pull off the 1-8 upset. Denver was ultimately overmatched by Malone’s playoff prowess in an all-time physical series.
Sidebar: The final minutes of this regular season game between these two teams that year might be one of the most electric of all time? Featuring a rookie Rodney Rogers.
Past the fact that a lower-seed matchup hasn’t been seen in 29 years, there are parallels that can be drawn between these two series’: Malone’s nickname was “The Mailman” because he always delivered — that torch has now passed to Jimmy Butler. All four teams play physical styles and excel on defence, with the Knicks and ’94 Nuggets both near the top of the league in rebounding.
Sidebar 2: The GM of the Nuggets in 1994 was Bernie Bickerstaff, father of J.B. Bickerstaff, coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers (who the Knicks just beat in five games).
All this to say that a series like this doesn’t come around often, and since the playoff format changed to a 1-through-8 seed bracket in 1984, this is only the third time it’s happened.
The upcoming series between the Knicks and Heat is set to be a physical matchup between two of the most gritty, down-to-the-wire teams in the league. Both teams were allergic to blowouts, ending as the second- and third-leading teams by minutes played in the clutch.
It projects to be a tight-knit affair full of ugly, snot-nosed basketball. How can you go wrong? Here’s one burning question for each team and one X-factor that could decide the series.
Regular season series: Knicks won season series 3-1
Odds to win series: Knicks -164 | Heat +123 (via Sports Interaction)
Game 1: Sunday, April 30 @ New York, 1:00 p.m. ET
Game 2: Tuesday, May 2 @ New York, 7:30 p.m. ET
Game 3: Saturday, May 6 @ Miami, 3:30 p.m. ET
Game 4: Monday, May 8 @ Miami, 7:30 p.m. ET
Game 5: Wednesday, May 10 @ New York, TBD
Game 6: Friday, May 12 @ Miami, TBD
Game 7: Monday, May 15 @ New York, 8:00 p.m. ET
Series Prediction: Knicks over Heat in seven games
Burning Question — New York Knicks: Can Randle return in time and how much does it actually matter?
Julius Randle is a great player, let’s get that out of the way, but his approach when under the brightest lights might be the biggest contrast between him and Jimmy Butler.
In his first playoffs appearance in 2021, Randle went from 24.1 points (.456/.411/.811 shooting), 1.2 steals+blocks and 3.4 turnovers per game in the regular season to 18.0 points (.298/.333/.852), 0.6 steals+blocks and 4.6 turnovers in the five-game loss to the Atlanta Hawks in the first round.
So far this postseason — though he’s been hampered by an ankle injury he suffered near the end of the regular season — his scoring is way down, going from 25.1 points (.459/.343/.757) to 14.4 points (.338/.235/.700) against the Cavaliers.
In Game 5 he re-aggravated his ankle injury, landing awkwardly after contesting a shot. According to Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau, Randle is doubtful for the opening contest against the Heat but is “feeling a little bit better.”
In his stead, forward Obi Toppin closed out the decisive game against the Cavs, finishing with 12 points in the second half and making two of his three looks from deep.
Despite clearly being a key contributor for the Knicks this season, Randle’s on/off numbers aren’t staggering, as the team only performs +0.1 points better when he’s on the court according to Cleaning the Glass (+5.8 offence, +5.7 defence).
The two-time All-Star has also been one of the least efficient players so far in the playoffs, as he’s only scoring 0.79 points-per-shot, good for second-worst in the post-season.
However, the skillset Randle brings is a huge component as to how the Knicks win basketball games.
When he’s on the court, the Knicks crash the offensive glass at an absurd rate, gobbling up 30.8 per cent of their misses, ranking in the 88th percentile according to Cleaning the Glass.
New York took down the Cavaliers because of that sort of physicality and hustle. Despite Cleveland running out two-big lineups with Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, the Knicks won the offensive rebound battle 75 to 46.
Miami isn’t anywhere close to the best rebounding team in the NBA, ranking fourth-to-last in total boards per game and outright lost the Play-In game against the Hawks because of a 22-6 differential on the offensive glass.
If the Knicks want to take down big-game Butler, they’ll have to do it through physical play and hustle, something they excel at when Randle is on the court regardless of his struggles in the playoffs.
Burning Question — Miami Heat: Just how far can Jimmy Butler carry this team?
It can’t be overstated just how incredible Jimmy Butler was in the first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks.
There’s an outdated ranking of the 15 greatest individual performances in NBA Playoff history by Bleacher Report from 2013. In it, you’ll find Michael Jordan’s flu game from 1997, Magic Johnson’s 42-point performance as a make-shift centre in the 1980 Finals and LeBron’s 25 consecutive points in the 2007 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Of those three legendary outings, Butler’s game score of 48.2 in his 56-point performance in Game 4 is higher than… all of them.
Butler led all players in scoring during the first round, averaging 37.6 points on .597/.444/.708 shooting splits against Jrue Holiday, Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo, three players that received votes for Defensive Player of the Year this season.
This team is all about Butler. A solar system player with the rest of the squad revolving entirely around him, and his gravity in this series will be immense.
Just to put into numbers how much Butler carried this team in the first round, he finished second in usage rate at 33.3 per cent (behind Trae Young at 33.5) and finished first in percentage of a team’s field goals made at 40.3 (second was Devin Booker at 35.3).
Injuries have also hampered the Heat so far, with guards Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo both suffering likely season-ending injuries during the first round.
In terms of supplementary production, the Heat will have to look towards Bam Adebayo who averaged 17.4 points on 46 per cent from the field and 3.4 turnovers, all worse than his regular season numbers.
But the Heat fly on the back of their superstar, and how far they go is dependent on how far he can take them.
Series X-Factor: Knicks’ RJ Barrett
No, this isn’t just for the Canadian content.
Of course, the spotlight of this series will be shone on Butler and Jalen Brunson, however, Mississauga’s very own could play an integral role for the Knicks in both alleviating Brunson’s scoring load and shutting down Butler on the other end.
The league has been waiting for a Barrett breakout since he was drafted as the third-overall pick in 2019. Though he’s been a solid scorer, averaging 18.1 points for his career and 19.6 in the regular season this year, his production has yet to match his potential, leaving people questioning what the height of his actual ceiling is.
His efficiency has left something to be desired, sporting an eFG% of 48.7 in the regular season, placing him in the 18th percentile league-wide. It didn’t improve much in the playoffs either at 49.3, good for the 23rd percentile.
However, in the final three games against Cleveland, flashes of how he could turn the tide of a series began to arise. He averaged 22.0 points on nearly 56 per cent from the field and was a steadying force on defence, taking on a mix of Caris LeVert, Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland.
Barrett, alongside Josh Hart, will likely take on the unenviable task of guarding Butler. The Knicks held him to 22.5 points per game in the regular season, however, the less athletically gifted Julius Randle was the primary assignment before the team acquired Hart at the deadline.
If the Knicks wish to slow down Butler, they’ll need a gritty defensive performance from their entire team, but in particular, they’ll need a tip-of-the-spear effort from Barrett.
With Barrett finding his rhythm on offence, the hope is that he’s able to use his athletic physique to attack Butler, forcing the leader of the Heat to play double duty, exerting as much energy as possible on the defensive end.
Now that the Bucks are out of the way, the Knicks have a clear path ahead of them. Brunson is the force that steadies the offence, but if Barrett can help his point guard with consistent play while slowing down Butler on the other end, the Knicks could very well make the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2000.