The Miami Heat are up 3-1 in the Eastern Conference semifinals, bearing in on a second straight appearance in the penultimate postseason series. There has not been a more demoralizing, one-sided set of games in the second round of the playoffs this year than what the Knicks have experienced.
In the past two games, the Heat have taken everything that the Knicks thrived on this season and done it better, nullifying their strengths, and adding in wrinkles the Knicks feel incapable of ironing out.
First and foremost, the Heat dominated the Knicks on the glass in Games 3 and 4. The box score only shows a minor discrepancy, but when factoring in offensive efficiency and total rebounds available, the pressure Miami has put on with second chances is astounding considering how much smaller the Heat frontcourt is. Per Cleaning the Glass, Miami has corralled 37 percent of their own misses while playing at home (The Knicks have grabbed 26.8 percent of their offensive rebounding opportunities compared to 34.9 percent last series against the Cavs).
Miami’s wings have been adept crashing the glass, with Caleb Martin and Jimmy Butler leading the charge. Effort is a cliche term, but the attention to detail from the Heat’s off-ball players has been noticeably better than New York’s. When the ball goes up, the Knicks operate like they’re taking a breather or are in between possessions. Miami, on the other hand, is treating the ball going up as just a continuation of the possession, or even as a boost to spark their offense.
So many of Miami’s offensive boards have been the agonizing variety where there’s three players in the vicinity, all waiting for the ball to fall, and a Heat player comes flying from across the court to corral it.
The Knicks have felt as though they’re on their back foot the entire time, trying to ward off every jab and hook from Miami. The Heat have ramped up the pace sensationally. That sounds ridiculous looking at the actual pace metrics — per Basketball-Reference, both teams are playing at a 92.8 possessions per 48 pace, well below where both teams played in the regular season (both teams were bottom 5 in pace).
But Miami has picked its spots well, taking particular advantage of kick-aheads off of live rebounds, something that’s been a staple of Kevin Love’s arsenal for years which the Heat have weaponized in this series in particular.
Kevin Love to Max Strus on the post flag for 6 pic.twitter.com/nGNq1lhDPX
— Mark Schindler (@MG_Schindler) May 6, 2023
Yet, it’s the pace in the halfcourt that stands out. This team does not stand still. There’s constant motion, consistent cutting, and Miami has run every player in New York’s rotation through a gauntlet of screens. Even if they’re using much of the shot clock, or going through multiple possessions in a set, Miami is so busy in the halfcourt and always finding small ways to push the ball down quickly that the Knicks are often playing catch up once a possession starts.
Already off kilter, the Heat have put even more strain on New York’s frontcourt through their blend of movement shooting and screening. So often when talking about the Heat, everything comes back to Bam Adebayo’s screening, and rightfully so. He’s one of the best! But, especially in Game 4, it was the screening from off-ball players that opened up cleanest looks Bam has had all postseason en route to a playoff high 23 points.
While Bam misses the jumper in this clip, there’s so much you can parse through in the process of this play.
Note how far out Mitchell Robinson is playing on Bam, a necessity given how dynamic he and Miami’s shooters have been in tandem with him as a hand-off and screening hub. Miami is shooting the lights out in the playoffs after a lethargic regular season, with every player in the top eight of the rotation shooting 36 percent or better from beyond the arc. That’s meant there hasn’t been a cold stretch that’s allowed the Knicks to really gamble with playing potential shooting luck.
Bam screens for Max Strus, who wheels right back to screen for him. Jalen Brunson shows before recovering back out to Strus, and Robinson dips under the screen, taking a long path back after the awkward screening angle. Even without the ball being in play, there’s an advantage/gap created in the defense borne out of Strus’ shooting gravity.
To Adebayo’s credit as well, he’s taken it to Robinson with his superior mobility. He’s continually shifting around and has enough touch to make Robinson tentative, and on top of all of the off-ball actions that have already got the 7-footer cautious, Bam has been adept at getting underneath Robinson’s center of gravity to finish, draw fouls, and boxout.
Last night was the first “star” box score of the series for Bam, but make no mistake, he’s been a star and the second best player in the series by a longshot through owning the little things.
Defensively, the Knicks have been stretched to the max, highlighting the lack of versatility on the roster. Brunson, as fantastic as he’s been offensively, has struggled to contain drives. With how well the Heat have used off-ball actions to offset some of New York’s stellar rim protection from Robinson, they’ve been carved up out of ball screens, and even blown by in isolation. Miami has shot too well to routinely use ICE coverage and be effective. That led to the Knicks trying to employ a hard hedge and recover scheme with Julius Randle at the four, in an attempt to halt interior drives.
This play is so indicative of how that went even with the shot not falling. Randle had real moments of freneticism and movement, and then large swaths of possessions where he jogs back after the shot. I don’t know if the ankle is bothering him. I don’t know if he’s just tired. I do know that it didn’t work because Miami moved the ball so quickly and moves their bodies quickly as well.
Everything Miami’s done has been faster, with more intention, and with the efficiency to make it matter and force defensive shift.
Obi Toppin has struggled to find an impact on the court, as he’s been too slow defensively and hasn’t found an effective role within the offense. Randle hasn’t shot well and his decision-making has been rough repeatedly, but the Heat have packed the paint incredibly well. They’ve pin-pointed and found the shooters they’re most comfortable sagging off of on the Knicks’ roster and it’s been abundantly clear.
Josh Hart is a fantastic cutter and driver, but the Heat have abandoned guarding him, mucking up the lane by cheating off of him.
While New York has shooters, they don’t have movement shooting in the same way Miami does. Quentin Grimes is the only player in the main rotation who is taking shots off screens at a high level, and he’s been muted this series. Immanuel Quickley is a phenomenal off the dribble shooter, but isn’t quite the same type of player who can fly off a pin-down and set his feet quickly (yet), and even then, he’s out with injury and has struggled in the playoffs.
The Knicks and Tom Thibodeau have made adjustments, they’ve tried different schemes and coverages, but at the end of the day, Miami has exploited some of the biggest holes in their roster. With the Heat owning the series by taking over the offensive glass, neutralizing size in the frontcourt, and essentially playing New York’s style better, the season looks just about over for the Knicks with many things that need to be addressed in the coming offseason.