7:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Heat -5.5, Over/Under: 211.0
A once bitter rivalry rekindles in the Big Apple, as the struggling New York Knicks play host to the East-leading Miami Heat as both teams emerge from the All-Star Break in this matchup from Madison Sqaure Garden in New York City, New York. Little over eighteen months removed from advancing to the NBA Finals during the National Basketball Association’s pandemic-interrupted campaign, the Heat (38-21, 1st in Eastern Conference) paid the price for their success last season, slumping to a 40-32 finish concluding with an unceremonious sweep in the first round of the playoffs. A ridiculously abridged offseason led to fatigue, which in turn led to injuries, and numerous outbreaks of COVID-19 meant that Miami was never afforded the luxury of properly defending their eastern crown. However, (Head Coach) Eirk Spoelstra & Co went into this past summer with a plan to recharge and continue to develop their talent, while also adding valuable reinforcements in the form of a number of seasoned veterans. It was clear that Spoelstra and (Team President) Pat Riley placed an emphasis on adding vets with championship experience, and the likes of (Point Guard) Kyle Lowry (13.3 PTS, 42.5% FG, 35.2% 3FG, 84.0% FT, 4.6 REB, 7.9 AST, 1.2 STL, 14.7 PER), (defensive stopper) P.J. Tucker (8.5 PTS, 49.5% FG, 45.0% 3FG, 72.2% FT, 5.5 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 12.2 PER), and (versatile Forward) Markieff Morris (7.7 PTS, 45.7% FG, 36.4% 3FG, 100.0% FT, 2.8 REB, 1.4 AST, 10.5 PER) offer that in spades, with each player performing a valuable role for each of the last three NBA Champions. Furthermore, all three figures fit the Heat’s culture PERFECTLY, stretching the floor from the perimeter, defending doggedly on the opposite of the end of the hardwood, and wearing a noticeable chip on their shoulders. Heading into the All-Star Break, Miami had been arguably the most consistent team in the East since the turn of the new year, winning fifteen of their twenty-three games in 2022, besting their opponents by an average margin of 5.0 points per game on 46.0% shooting from the field, including a stellar 37.6% from beyond the arc, along with 26.6 assists opposed to 14.6 turnovers. Defensively, they’ve been as staunch as ever despite being one of the more undersized teams in the league, yielding 105.8 points on 44.4% shooting, including 33.8% from downtown, while winning the battle of the boards by 4.2 rebounds and permitting 23.6 assists in comparison to forcing 14.2 turnovers. This trend has only continued of late, for over the last seven contests, a period in which they’ve gone 6-1, Spoelstra’s troops have relegated opponents to meager averages of 100.4 points on 41.8% shooting, 28.8% from three, 22.6 assists and 14.7 turnovers. A biproduct of the addition of Lowry, Tucker, and Morris has been the effect that they’ve had on the younger players, particularly (third-year Guard) Tyler Herro (20.0 PTS, 42.7% FG, 37.4% 3FG, 87.9% FT, 4.8 REB, 3.9 AST, 0.6 STL, 14.8 PER); the 22-year-old was crucial to their run to the Finals, though suffered mightily during his sophomore campaign, only to develop into arguably the most dangerous sixth man in the NBA. Indeed, Herro has posted career-highs in a slew of categories including minutes (32.7), points (20.0), and assists (3.9), and if he keeps this up will in all likelihood land Sixth Man of the Year honors as the first reserve to average twenty or more points since the turn of the century. While an ailing knee has kept him out of action for four of the last five games before the Break, Spoelstra has stated that he expects the young sharpshooter to make his return tonight. However, we’re not going to get far talking about the Heat without mentioning (All-Star Swingman) Jimmy Butler (21.8 PTS, 47.8% FG, 19.2% 3FG, 89.6% FT, 6.4 REB, 6.0 AST, 1.8 STL, 0.5 BLK, 24.9 PER), who continues to lead them in this, his third season with the franchise. Is there anyone in the Association who is a better fit for the team they play for than Butler? After suiting up for three different clubs over a three-year span, the six-time All-Star earned a divisive reputation as both a bull-headed playmaker and a malcontent, though has nonetheless found a home on South Beach. Sure, in an era in which there has never been a greater onus placed on shooting, the 32-year-old is a throwback to the 90’s in just about every sense imaginable, and somehow makes it all work in today’s game. He’s yet to shoot over 24.5% from long range during his tenure with Miami, and this season he’s netting a scant 19.2% of his treys (his lowest rate in a decade), but that simply hasn’t mattered as Spoelstra has surrounded him with a bevy of shooters to space the court and allow him to operate within the arc, where he’s been nothing short of efficient in shooting 52.1% on two-point field goals. Furthermore, few are more adept at getting to the charity stipe than Butler, who is sinking 7.1 attempts a night, and ranks seventh overall with 283 singles made. And the work that he puts in on the defensive end? That speaks for itself, with the five-time All-NBA Defense selection logging at least two defensive win shares for the fifth consecutive season.
When we last saw the Heat, they bounced back from their only loss during this stretch, a 107-99 defeat at home to the Mavericks, with a hard-fought 111-107 victory on the road at the Hornets that required two overtimes to decide a winner. After outscoring the hosts 37-30 in a first quarter in which they were simply unconscious from the field (75.0% FG), Miami inexplicably flatlined in the second period, where they were ousted 24-10. Spoelstra’s charges struggled to throw the ball into the ocean on 3-of-17 shooting (17.6%), including 0-of-8 from beond the arc, offering more turnovers (5) than assists (1) as they headed into intermission trailing 54-47. After both sides looked fatigued in the third stanza scoring seventeen points apiece, the visitors managed to find their touch in the final frame, briefly taking the lead before Charlotte forced overtime as Butler’s would-be game-winner clanked off the rim. This would also be the case in the first extra period, as tired legs made their presence felt, though the second OT would feature the Heat finally asserting control as the better-conditioned side; the Hornets went nearly three minutes without a single point, a disastrous spell littered with three turnovers and an offensive foul, which was more than enough for their opponent to take advantage of. In the end, Miami only shot 40.2% from the field, and 14-of-48 from downtown (29.2%), and despite netting just 15-of-23 free-throws (65.2%), managed to earn the win on the strength of their tenacity on the glass, with fifteen offensive rebounds leading to seven more field goal attempts. Though he logged over fifty minutes of action, Butler was clearly tired in totaling a mere fifteen points on 5-of-24 shooting (20.8%), including 1-of-8 from three (12.5%), with ten rebounds, eight assists, and four turnovers. Fortunately, five other Heat finished the night in double-figures scoring, led by the aforementioned Lowry, who dropped twenty-five points on an efficient 9-of-16 shooting overall (56.3%), along with nine rebounds, five assists, and a pair of steals. (Sharpshooting Forward) Duncan Robinson (11.8 PTS, 39.8% FG, 36.4% 3FG, 83.3% FT, 3.0 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.6 STL, 10.8 PER) added another twenty-one points on 6-of-13 shooting (46.2%), combining with Lowry to knock down all but two of their team’s triples (12-of-24 3FG). This was another area in which Spoelstra’s charges earned an advantage, outscoring Charlotte by twelve points in that regard. With Herro among other members of the rotation dealing with various maladies this was a good sign of this group’s toughness and resilience, for on the eve of the Break it would have been understandable if they were to simply take the night off, particularly against a much younger opponent known for pushing the tempo. Essentially tied with the Bulls for first place in the Eastern Conference and just 2.5 games from falling to fifth, we have a feeling that this respite may be exactly what the doctor prescribed for the Heat, who once again look like a force at the top of standings, and figure to be nothing short of a tough out for any opponent they face come the playoffs. As far as tonight’s opponent goes, the blood feud that defined these two franchises throughout the late 90’s/early 00’s may be squarely in the rearview mirror, though there is no doubt that those feelings could rise back to the surface at the drop of a dime; when they met earlier this season, a 110-96 Miami victory at FTX Arena back in late January, the hosts jumped all over the Knickerbockers early, outscoring them 30-16 in a first quarter in which they ran roughshod on 12-of-22 shooting aided by five New York turnovers, with the triumvirate of Butler, Tucker, and Duncan combining for twenty-three points on a torrid 9-of-11 shooting (81.8%).
Meanwhile, with over two-thirds of the campaign in the books, the Knicks (25-34, 12th in Eastern Conference) have been nothing short of a dark reflection of their opponent tonight. Whereas Miami failed to meet expectations a year ago after running all the way to the Finals, New York overachieved MASSIVELY in returning to the playoffs for the first time in eight years, and while the Heat have bolstered their ranks en route to rising to the top of the East, the denizens of the Big Apple stood largely pat and have thus found themselves once again mired in mediocrity. So, what in the name of Willis Reed has happened to the Knickerbockers, you ask? Well, as we just stated, this is a team that greatly overachieved under the watch of (Head Coach) Tom Thibodeau, who in his first season with the franchise oversaw a 20-game improvement, the second largest in the Association. After nearly a decade of dysfunction and poor play, it appeared all too easy for the 64-year-old to exceed what were embarrassingly low expectations, with the fan base craving any signs of improvement to be found. In that regard, Thibodeau certainly delivered, stabilizing the organization and sparking growth across the roster, with a slew of young talents emerging as playmakers, none more so than (versatile Forward) Julius Randle (19.8 PTS, 42.1% FG, 30.6% 3FG, 76.5% FT, 10.2 REB, 5.2 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.6 BLK, 16.3 PER). In his seventh season, the light finally turned on for Randle, who enjoyed his first All-Star and All-NBA nods while posting career-highs in a slew of categories including points (24.1), three-point shooting (41.1%), rebounds (10.2), and assists (6.0). Coach Thibs would be awarded as well, earning Coach of the Year honors for the second time in his career, though expectations were sure to raise exponentially as a result, particularly within the City That Never Sleeps. And that’s been arguably the biggest issue for this group, who haven’t come close to meeting those expectations, no matter how unreasonable they are, and without significant reinforcements, in either the offseason or before the Trade Deadline, the Knicks were largely quiet, which has really rubbed their faithful the wrong way. Signing (All-Star Guard) Kemba Walker (11.6 PTS, 40.3% FG, 36.7% 3FG, 84.5% FT, 3.0 REB, 3.5 AST, 0.7 STL, 14.3 PER) backfired almost immediately, with the native New Yorker proving to be a poor fit in Thibodeau’s starting five, leading to his benching after just nineteen games. In fact, the organization recently released the statement that they will be effectively shutting Walker down for the rest of the campaign, so that he can get healthy and pepare for next season, which barring an unforeseen turn of events will be away from the Knicks. Unable to move him at the Deadline, Thibs opted instead to acquire the services of (third-year Guard) Cam Reddish (5.0 PTS, 32.4% FG, 18.8% 3FG, 95.2% FT, 0.9 AST, 0.4 AST, 11.9 PER), though has rarely utilized him, logging a scant 11.6 minutes in nine appearances. After fifty-nine games, it’s apparent that the biggest problem that this group has is that they continue to field arguably the least-productive starting lineup in the NBA; though this is nothing new for New York, it worked last year because their bench was one of the league’s best, particularly with (veteran Guard) Derrick Rose (12.0 PTS, 44.5% FG, 40.2% 3FG, 96.8% FT, 3.0 REB, 4.0 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.5 BLK, 17.3 PER) reuniting with Thibodeau to provide his scoring and playmaking nous in a reserve role. Appearing in just twenty-six games and missing the last THIRTY games due to an ankle injury, the rotation has struggled to make up for his absence, which has also created a problem for Randle, who simply hasn’t been as productive as he was a year ago. Now, we’re not saying that this guy has fallen off a cliff, but perhaps it was always a bit unreasonable to think that he would be able to maintain the level of play he exhibited a year ago; the 27-year-old has regressed across the board, with his perimeter shooting falling dramatically (30.6%) causing his scoring to dip to 19.8 points per game. With that regression coupled with the absence of Rose, there just isn’t enough firepower for the Knicks compete against the better teams in the league. On the season, they’re averaging a disappointing 105.1 points (27th Overall) on 43.4% shooting (27th Overall), including a miserable 49.5 % from within the arc (28th Overall), along with just 21.5 assists (29th Overall), all the while sporting an offensive rating of 109.0 (25th Overall). As you can imagine, those numbers take on an even greater meaning during this period without Rose; New York are a miserable 12-18 an averaging 104.3 points on 43.1% shooting and 34.1% from beyond the arc, with only 21.5 assists to boot. Furthermore, they’ve managed to win just THREE of their last sixteen outings, which has seen their once stellar defense falter in allowing 111.8 points on 45.8% shooting and 34.6% from three, with 25.9 assists opposed to 12.1 turnovers. Needless to say, given their lack of weapons this is a team that simply cannot win if they can’t get stops on the defensive end of the hardwood, which is a major reason why they’ve spiraled all the way down the standings out of the play-in field.
When we last saw the Knicks, they entered the All-Star Break on a three-game losing streak with an embarrassing 111-106 loss at home to the severely depleted Nets. This one was troublesome for a variety of reasons, as both sides have struggled to find their form in recent weeks, with Brooklyn’s rotation completely overhauled following the blockbuster trade of James Harden, while both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were on the sidelines, the former due to injury and the latter due to the ongoing saga that has been COVID vaccination status, and the restrictions levied by the state of New York. With all that said, what made this defeat so humiliating is the fact that this was absolutely a winnable game for the hosts, who led by as many as TWENTY-EIGHT points in last Wednesday’s debacle, only to see their intercity rivals end the affair on a ridiculous 67-42 run. It was a tale of two halves, as Thibodeau’s charges raced out to a 38-18 lead in the first quarter and ended the half shooting a blistering 57.5% from the field, including 13-of-23 from beyond the arc (56.5%), with twice as many assists (12) as turnovers, all the while relegating the visiting side to a dismal 34.0% shooting and 4-of-19 from downtown (21.1%). However, the second half would see the tables turn dramatically as the Nets caught fire on 52.9% shooting and 7-of-15 shooting from three (46.7%), with twelve assists opposed to only four turners, while the home side could muster just 31.1% shooting and 3-of-20 from deep (15.0%). After finally losing the lead with just over two minutes remaining in the contest, New York cut it to three points with sevens second to play, only for (young Guard) Cam Thomas to drain a 29-footer to extend the lead to six. (French Swingman) Evan Fournier (14.5 PTS, 42.4% FG, 39.4% 3FG, 72.3% FT, 2.9 ERB, 1.9 AST, 1.0 STL, 13.0 PER) responded with a trey of his own on the ensuing possession, but at that point they had to foul in order to prolong the inevitable, as (veteran Big) LaMarcus Aldridge calmly knocked down a pair of free-throws to ice the comeback. Despite outscoring Brooklyn from long range (+15) and in transition (+13), the Knicks were battered in the paint (-10), largely due to their opponent killing them on the offensive glass (15-10), which led to a number of easy second-chance points. Randle authored a game-high thirty-one points on 10-of-22 shooting (45.5%), including 4-of-8 from three (50.0%) and 7-of-8 from the charity stripe (87.5%), along with ten rebounds, three assists, and a pair of blocks, though was also responsible for a quartet of turnovers. Fournier added sixteen points, with virtually all of his production coming from the perimeter (4-of-12 3FG), while (Sophomore Guard) Immanuel Quickley (9.4 PTS, 36.8% FG, 32.8% 3FG, 91.4% FT, 2.3 REB, 3.0 AST, 0.6 STL, 11.5 PER) was the only other player to score in double-figures for Thibodeau, totaling eighteen points off the bench. Walker though, was largely an afterthought, scoring just nine points on 2-of-5 shooting (40.0%) in a rare start. After yet another loss, New York have fallen to twelfth in the Eastern Conference, and are currently 3.5 games out of the final play-in spot.