MIAMI – RJ Barrett rejected the premise.
Yes, the New York Knicks chose to attack the Miami Heat’s best defensemen, especially early in Saturday’s loss. And no, they didn’t score much on those plays. But when asked about his approach to teammates Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler, two all-around players, during the 105-86 win in Miami, the 22-year-old flipped the question.
“Why don’t we want to attack them?” Barrett replied.
Adebayo has made three all-defensive teams and may have a fourth on the way once awards season is over. Butler made five and remains as good as ever. But the Knicks, who owned one of the league’s top offenses during the regular season, continued to poke around with the duo, especially during the opening period of Saturday’s loss.
The first play of the game ended with Julius Randle squaring Adebayo on the right wing and making a turnaround that barely touched the rim. Randle took nine dribbles over the last 14 seconds of that possession; His four teammates on the ground took a zero.
It was a bad omen.
Minutes later, with just six seconds left on the shot clock for another possession, Barrett sprinted left against Butler, who never let the 22-year-old get close to the rim and then squashed an off-kilter runner. But even considering the score (New York’s lowest-scoring game since early November) and even considering Miami’s credentials, Barrett defends the process.
“Yeah, they’re the best offensive players too,” Barrett said, hinting that it wouldn’t hurt to exhaust the Heat’s two drives. “Try to attack them. Especially me, I don’t care who’s guarding me. I’ll try to play. … You can also look at the possibility that they might have an early foul problem and that could change the game. Whoever is in front of us, we just have to play our style of basketball” .
But no matter which way you cut it, the Knicks didn’t seem to play their style on Saturday. There’s a difference between a hero’s ball and smart homers. And this is the team that has achieved results throughout the regular season with effective one-on-one play. Jalen Bronson was maneuvering until he was the defender he wanted him to be and then the abuse started. The Heat have guys that can be exploited as well, from Duncan Robinson to Max Strus to Kevin Love.
Saturday wasn’t the first day the Knicks failed to recognize the mismatch, either. Even in Game Two, which New York won, they left food on the table. In some plays, the ballplayers ran key checks, got the keys they wanted, and then gave up on basketball anyway. On possession in the first half, Robinson (who switches in and out of the Miami cycle due to porous defense) pinned Emmanuel Kwekley in the corner but the Knicks failed to realize. The theme continued in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference Semi-Finals.
But Barrett isn’t acting alone. More important than anyone staring a dribbler in the face, his coach, Tom Thibodeau, says is how that dribbler interacts with the defense.
“The matches were different, so you have to read the match,” said Thibodeau. The Heat shook up their defense against a man-to-man fight to start the afternoon, putting Butler on Barrett, despite Barrett having started previous games and outplayed the younger Gabe Vincent.
“When you cut through, they’re going to collapse and then you have to trust the pass,” Thibaudeau continued. “So, it’s not about who you’re going to. It’s, well, read the game.”
Read the game It’s Thibodeau’s mascot. But on Saturday, it was also just one of many problems the Knicks faced.
They only shot 34 percent from the field and 20 percent from 3-pointers from the floor. This is the second time in three games against Miami that they have failed from deep inside. They scored just 70.4 points per 100 possessions while operating out of the half court, according to Glass Cleaning. This is no way to survive.
There are other problems they have to deal with as well.
There was a problem with Randle, who had only 10 points on 4-of-15 shooting and whose struggles carried over to the other side of the field. He was routinely the last Knicks player to return to defense and was a late shutout of Miami 3-point shooters.
There was a problem shooting. Sure, any team would have trouble fighting against Adebayo and Butler, but things look a lot worse even when the easy looks aren’t showing across the net. It took the Knicks 18 minutes to sink their first shot outside the paint, corner 3 by Quickley. They were already in great decline by that time.
At that point, they were 0-of-8 on 3-point range and 0-of-7 on non-paint 2s—not the shot profile they bragged about during the regular season. They failed to create the look they wanted while also not hitting them anyway. They finished 8 of 40 from deep and 5 of 15 on non-paint 2s.
There was an issue with spacing the irregularities. The Heat ambush the New York hackers, a more straightforward strategy with Josh Hart, more driver than shooter, in the starting lineup.
There was a problem with Kyle Lowry – Lowry didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, the opposite is true. With 6 minutes left in a 19-point game, Lowry was still diving down the field with the same loose balls the Knicks were hauling. The Knicks won during the regular season and even the first round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers because they played harder than their competitors. No one could outsmart Laurie, who may have taken charge on his way out of the womb. But the Knicks didn’t even match him at his level.
There was a problem on the glass, as the Knicks were built to eliminate opponents, not to be up to par, as they did on Saturday.
There are ankle problems. Bronson, who has been dealing with an ankle injury, limped through most of the game, despite insisting he would be fit to play in Game 4, which is scheduled for Monday night. He finished with 20 points, six rebounds and eight assists on an uncharacteristic 7-of-20 shooting. Randle plays through a sprained ankle. Meanwhile, Quickley sprained his ankle during the second half on Saturday. Thibodeau said Nicks will know more about the injury when doctors reevaluate him on Sunday.
But perhaps the biggest problem is that the Knicks never looked like themselves – starting with the way they handled their offense. Sure, they love to go one-on-one, but they do it in a way that won them 47 regular season games and catapulted them to third in the league in points per possession.
And whatever happened on Saturday, unfortunate or not, it didn’t work out. Nothing comes easy in the playoffs, but the Knicks don’t have to make life too difficult for themselves.
(Photo by Emmanuel Quickly: Rich Story / USA Today)
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