Miami’s superb defense overcame its own underwhelming offense to retake the series lead.
For the first time in these playoffs, the Miami Heat offense looked a lot like the one that ranked 25th in the regular season. The Heat scored just 105 points on 96 possessions (109.4 per 100) in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the New York Knicks, their worst offensive performance of the postseason.
And they won by 19 points, shutting down the Knicks to take a 2-1 series lead and retain home-court advantage.
In regard to the scoring, this was the most 90s-era Knicks-Heat game of the series thus far, with the two teams combining to shoot 15-for-72 (21%) from 3-point range. And the offense was much uglier on New York’s end of the floor, where Jalen Brunson, RJ Barrett and Julius Randle all struggled to find a rhythm.
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Jimmy Butler, meanwhile, returned from a one-game absence and led all scorers with 28 points, and the Heat are now 10-2 in the last 12 games that their star has been in uniform. More importantly, they’re two wins from their third trip to the conference finals in the four years that they’ve had Butler on their squad.
Here are some notes, numbers and film from an offensive struggle…
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1. Bogged down
The Knicks shot 8-for-40 from beyond the arc, 5-for-7 from the right corner and 3-for-33 elsewhere. They’ve now shot worse than 33% from 3-point range in seven of their eight playoff games (with Game 2 of this series being the exception), something they did 33 times (40% of their games) in the regular season.
But it was more than a make-or-miss-league issue on Saturday. The Knicks didn’t run good offense, partly because the Heat were terrific defensively and partly because the Knicks themselves didn’t have the right mind set on that end of the floor.
On the very first possession of the game, Randle was double-teamed, leaving Josh Hart wide open and just one pass away…
But Randle kept the ball and forced a tough fadeaway that barely grazed the rim.
Midway through the second quarter, Obi Toppin, who made eight off-the-dribble 3s all season long, missed a step-back 3 with 12 second still left on the shot clock. And on the very next possession, Immanuel Quickley pulled up from 27 feet instead of attacking Duncan Robinson…
Quickley eventually had the Knicks’ first 3-point make of the game, and it was in transition too. But it was off the catch and from the right corner.
That was one of the few good possessions the Knicks had on Saturday. Late in the third quarter, Randle drove, collapsed the defense, and found Hart in the left corner for an open and in-rhythm look.
“If we spray the ball, good things are gonna come,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said afterward. “Drive, pass, pass is the best way to create rhythm.”
But those kinds of possessions were few and far between in Game 3. The Knicks actually had 21 transition points, their most in the series, according to Synergy tracking. But their half-court offense was brutal.
“We got bogged down,” Thibodeau lamented, “and offense was hard.”
2. Heat get defensive
The Heat made it hard. Their own offense wasn’t great on Saturday, but they didn’t let that affect a defense that held its opponent under 90 points per 100 possessions for just the second time this season (92 total games).
Miami was able to load up to the strong side and still recover on those occasions when the Knicks did move ball somewhat quickly. A couple of possessions after the too-quick, no-movement Toppin and Quickley 3-point attempts noted above, the Heat were able to prevent New York from gaining an advantage out of an empty-corner pick-and-roll for Brunson, helping, rotating, and eventually forcing a turnover from Randle…
That was Bam Adebayo helping at the nail, containing Quickley’s drive, and then closing out to Randle. And the big man drew the main praise from Heat coach Erik Spoelstra afterward.
“We were active,” Spoelstra said. “And I thought Bam was a major part of that. He was all over the place, both ends of the court.”
3. Two to Jimmy
The Knicks were a little more aggressive in defending Butler than they were in Game 1, sending double-teams at him on a handful of occasions. Sometimes, he scored anyway. Sometimes, they made pretty good rotations out of the double…
But on the first possession of the third quarter, Brunson doubled when Butler was isolated against Randle, and nobody else was ready to rotate out to Max Strus, who got an open 3 to put the Heat up 17…
The Knicks generally aren’t a team that likes to bring two to the ball and rotate, but Butler is a special player and these are the playoffs. If they are going to double-team Butler going forward, they have to be (as is the case with their offense) quicker and more decisive than they were on Saturday.
4. Knicks bench struggling
In the regular season, the Knicks’ bench ranked fourth in aggregate point differential per 100 possessions (how well the team performed with reserves on the floor), while the Heat bench ranked 22nd. But the No. 1 bench in the playoffs belongs to Miami, with Caleb Martin (plus-57) and Duncan Robinson (plus-55) having the best cumulative plus-minus marks on the team.
That the Heat have made terrific role players out of undrafted guys is nothing new. But to have those undrafted guys winning the bench minutes against this particular opponent is huge.
With Josh Hart in the starting lineup, the Knicks’ bench isn’t the same as it was late in the regular season. Quickley has struggled, shooting just 10-for-28 (36%), including 3-for-16 from 3-point range. And he has just one assist in 57 minutes. Toppin has taken 17 of his 23 shots from beyond the arc and made just five of those 17 attempts. Isaiah Hartenstein came up huge down the stretch of Game 2, but was a minus-18 in 26 minutes on Saturday.
That’s not as bad as Barrett’s minus-32. The Knicks haven’t staggered the minutes of Brunson and Randle, going to a second unit of Barrett and the reserves. That lineup is a minus-22 in 19 minutes in the series, having scored an anemic 24 points on 37 offensive possessions (65 per 100).
Thibodeau has trusted his bench all season, and it had rewarded him until this point. But it may be time to switch things up.
5. Another ankle
After spraining his right ankle in the fourth quarter of Game 1 and missing Game 2, Butler benefited from the three full days between before Game 3, and looked pretty good in the first half on Saturday. But he seemed to turn that ankle again with a little less than seven minutes to go in the third quarter on Saturday.
He stayed in the game until the end of the period and, with the Heat up big, it looked like he might get the entire fourth quarter off. But when the Knicks cut a 22-point deficit down to 14, Butler was back and promptly drained a step-back jumper to stem the tide.
The Knicks, meanwhile, have been dealing with two ankle injuries (those of Brunson and Randle), and they added a third on Saturday. Quickley turned his left ankle midway through the fourth quarter and did not return.
There are no more three-day breaks between games, so the respective training staffs are on the clock.
So are the Knicks. Game 4 is Monday (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT).
By John Schuhmann
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