3 things to watch as Knicks face Heat in 2023 NBA playoffs
The Knicks-Heat series starts on Sunday at 1 p.m. at The Garden. If recent -- and not so recent -- history is an indication, this should be a competitive, deep series.
The winner advances to the Eastern Conference Final, a place the Knicks haven’t been since 2000.
With that in mind, here are three things to keep an eye on early in the series:
1. Board meeting
The Knicks did many things well in their first-round win over Cleveland. One of them? Rebounding. And you could argue that it was the most critical area of the series.
The Knicks outrebounded the Cavs by 29 on the offensive glass over five games. They also took 27 more shots across the series. In a playoff setting where every possession matters, those extra shots take can be the difference between success and failure.
The Heat finished in the bottom five in offensive rebounds and defensive rebounds per game in the regular season. But they did well in keeping the Bucks from grabbing offensive rebounds in the first round.
The Heat lineup of Jimmy Butler, Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, Kevin Love and Bam Adebayo -- the one they used most often in their upset over the Milwaukee Bucks -- presents a different challenge for the Knicks. The Cavs lineup featuring Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley didn’t have the level of outside shooting that Miami’s brings. So Knick defenders may be forced to defend the perimeter more than they did against Cleveland.
But if Robinson maintains his current level of play against Miami, the Heat are in trouble.
Robinson averaged 9.8 rebounds per game -- 5.8 on the offensive glass -- and 2.2 blocks. Those numbers don’t convey the number of drives/shots at the rim he deterred. They also don’t convey the number of possessions where Cleveland had to commit two players to box out Robinson on the offensive glass, which created openings and advantages for New York.
After their first-round series loss to the Atlanta Hawks in 2021, Knick coaches gathered to assess the series and how they could improve moving forward. One of their big takeaways was not having a healthy Robinson really hurt them against the Hawks. Fast forward two years later, and that assessment is 100 percent correct.
Robinson may have been the most valuable Knick in their series win against the Cavs.
2. Do you start Josh Hart?
Quentin Grimes is progressing toward a return from his shoulder injury. He missed the final two games of the Cavs series. Hart started in his place at shooting guard. The Knicks obviously had success with Hart in the starting lineup, which at least raises the question of keeping Hart in the starting lineup once Grimes returns. As discussed on The Putback, the smart money says Tom Thibodeau will stick with Grimes as his starter. Hart will surely see a ton of minutes but it’s hard to see Thibodeau changing a starting lineup that’s had success all year long, as Fred Katz noted in The Putback.
Also, the Knicks will need both Grimes and Hart to be at their best on defense. Those two will probably spend the bulk of their minutes defending Jimmy Bulter, who had a 56-point game against the Bucks and averaged a playoff-high 38.1 points per game (pls check this) while willing Miami to a series win.
Regardless of who is in the lineup, the Knicks will need to do a good job getting out to Miami’s perimeter shooters. The Heat shot a blistering 45 percent from beyond the arc against the Bucks -- even with Tyler Herro out due to a broken hand. Duncan Robinson entered the rotation and shot well for the Heat.
So the Knicks’ perimeter defense will be put to the test. Hart and Grimes will be pivotal in that area.
Also worth noting: the Knicks led all playoff teams with 23 points off of turnovers per 100 possessions in the first round. Miami does a good job taking care of the ball. But if Hart, Grimes and the Knicks can continue to score at that rate off of turnovers, it will give them a significant edge in what should be a grind-it-out series.
3. Is Julius Randle healthy?
Randle will do his best to be ready for Game 1 on Sunday, but his ankle injury may keep him from suiting up. Randle was walking cautiously in the locker room after the game after icing his ankle. It’s the same ankle that forced Randle to miss the final two weeks of the regular season.
The initial thought on Randle’s injury in Game 5 was that it was less severe than his first ankle sprain. But a sprain of the same ankle in less than four weeks is troubling.
If Randle can’t play on Sunday, the Knicks should feel confident in Obi Toppin’s ability to perform. Toppin was excellent against Cleveland, averaging eight points on 45 percent shooting to go with 1.5 offensive rebounds, one steal and one block per game.
With Randle sidelined due to the ankle sprain, Toppin scored 12 points in the first eight minutes of the third quarter in Game 5. His play in that stretch was crucial in the Knicks’ close-out win.
So Toppin has shown the Knicks -- and his opponents -- that he can perform in the playoffs. That’s a good insurance policy for New York if Randle can’t go.