Tom Thibodeau previews Knicks - Heat matchup, how to contain Jimmy Butler, old rivalry
The Knicks and Miami Heat get set to face off in the Eastern Conference semifinals starting on Sunday, April 30 at 1 p.m. at Madison Square Garden and there is no shortage of narratives and storylines that will take center stage.
Want to start with the rivalry that started more than 25 years ago when both teams met in the playoffs in four straight seasons between 1997-2000 – during which head coach Tom Thibodeau was an assistant coach?
How about Thibodeau facing his former player with the Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves and current playoff hero Jimmy Butler for the first time in the postseason?
Whatever it is, this series is ripe with storylines that can cement legacies or even catapult careers. Oh yeah, not to mention a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals on the line, as well.
“They played a great series. Any time you knock off the top seed it says that you’re a heck of a team and so we’re gonna have to be at our best,” Thibodeau said about the Heat who defeated the Milwaukee Bucks in five games.
Miami’s series win over the Bucks was just the fifth time a No. 8 seed took down a No. 1 seed and the first time in playoff history that a play-in team won a series. Ironically enough, one of the four other upsets happened in 1999 when the No. 8 seed Knicks defeated the No. 1 seed Heat.
Does Miami have revenge on its mind? Another storyline.
A big reason why the Heat embarrassed Milwaukee in the first round was the play of Butler. He averaged 37.6 points per game in the series and it was his 56-point barrage in Game 4 and 42-point performance in Game 5 – including a one-handed circus shot in the final seconds to send the game to overtime – that closed things out.
“There’s nothing he can’t do because it’s not just the shot-making, it’s the ability to get into the paint, make plays, get to the line – you have to be disciplined against him – but also his shot creation,” Thibodeau said about Butler. “So your team has to be locked in to the things that he’s doing, have to have an awareness and you can’t gift him free throws and you gotta have good body position against him and you got to guard him with your team.
“But they’re a lot more than just Jimmy. When you look at what Bam (Adebayo) does, you look at all the things that Kyle Lowry provides, they can break you down off the dribble, they can shoot the three, they can rebound the ball and they’re very aggressive defensively.”
So, even though New York escaped Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in the semifinals and have home-court advantage, it cannot take this No. 8 seed lightly.
The two teams played four times during the regular season, with the Knicks taking the season series, 3-1, including their most recent win on March 29 at home in which they won 101-92. In those four games, Butler averaged 22.5 points but had just 12 and 10 points at the Garden. However, he exploded for 35 and 33 points in two home games.
The biggest difference between the season series and this second-round series will be the absence of Miami’s Tyler Herro. The small forward played just 19 minutes in Game 1, scoring 12 points, before suffering a broken hand that required surgery.
Without Herro, the Heat lose a talented three-point shooter, but his injury has allowed them to shuffle their rotation and give some different players more minutes and new roles – something Thibodeau knows.
“Obviously they lost Herro but they’ve added (Duncan) Robinson so it’s similar in a sense of the three-point shooting component,” he said. “And then (Victor) Oladipo is a terrific talent but they’ve also got Lowry playing more now and that makes them a lot different.
"I think when you look at how they played in the regular season to where they are now, they averaged 124 points a game against a really good defensive team so I think the three-point part of it is something they’re doing well and we’re gonna have to be at our best in terms of challenging shots.”
As for New York, Julius Randle’s status remains in question after he re-injured his ankle in Game 5 against the Cleveland Cavaliers. However, Thibodeau did offer an update on his power forward on Friday.
“He didn’t do much today, but he’s feeling a little bit better,” he said. “So he’ll go through the rehab, see where he is tomorrow. He was better today than he was yesterday and that was the big thing so we’re hopeful.”
Regardless, this series will undoubtedly be extremely competitive as the Heat hope to continue their improbable run and the Knicks look to make it to their first conference finals since 2000 when they eliminated Miami in seven games, the last time of a string of four straight years that the two franchises met in the playoffs.
Thibodeau was there during that four-year stretch and remembers it all too well.
“Just how fierce it was, great respect for them and the way they competed,” he said about what stood out about the rivalry. “You go back now and occasionally a game will be replayed and the physicality but it was just great, hard competition and it was on every play… It was great competition, it really was. There’s nothing better than that.”