In an unlikely turn of events, the New York Knicks and Miami Heat will face off in the Eastern Conference Semifinals as they pulled off shocking five-game upsets over their respective first round opponents.
The fifth seed Knicks, literally as much as figuratively, outmuscled the fourth place Cleveland Cavaliers while the Heat, who took the last playoff berth via the play-in, shocked the Milwaukee Bucks who finished with the best regular season record in the league.
New York was expected to struggle against Cleveland’s twin tower combination of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, but instead it was their starting center Mitchell Robinson who emerged as the best big man in the series.
The 25-year-old Robinson was phenomenal in New York’s 106-95 Game 5 win to clinch the best-of-seven match-up, tallying 13 points on six-of-nine field goal shooting, 18 rebounds, two steals, and three blocks.
Robinson’s 18 rebounds included 11 on the offensive end which continued the series-long trend of the Knicks dominating the Cavaliers on the glass. New York collected 17 offensive rebounds in Game 5 compared with a mere four from the entire Cleveland team.
In what has become typical for the Knicks, Jalen Brunson had a noteworthy performance as well, leading them in scoring with 23 points along with four rebounds, four assists, and two steals. Meanwhile, RJ Barrett had his third consecutive strong outing after struggling over the first two games of the series. Barrett had 21 points, on seven-of-13 shooting, four rebounds, four assists, and a steal en route to leading the team in +/- with +21.
It was not purely smooth sailing for New York though as their two-time NBA All-Star Julius Randle reaggravated his ankle injury that he suffered a few weeks ago. Though Randle has been a shell of himself since returning from his injury, the Knicks still need him on the court as his presence will give them a size advantage in this upcoming series with the Heat. Randle’s injury is believed to be a minor tweak and the Knicks expect him to suit up for Game 1 against Miami.
This New York team has become the embodiment of head coach Tom Thibodeau’s grueling style and it paid off handsomely versus the Cavaliers. However, their upcoming opponent will be bannered by a player that Thibodeau is all too familiar with.
Heat superstar Jimmy Butler, now in his 12th year in the NBA, kicked off his career over a decade ago playing for Thibodeau on the Chicago Bulls. Thibodeau’s gritty approach was perfect for the hard-nosed Butler who blossomed from a late first round pick into a multiple-time NBA All-Star under his tutelage.
The defensive-minded Thibodeau enjoyed coaching Butler so much during their four seasons together at Chicago that he dealt for the Marquette product in 2017 while he was with the Minnesota Timberwolves as their head coach and President of Basketball Operations.
Unfortunately, their reunion was short-lived as they only spent one full campaign with the Timberwolves after Butler demanded a trade which reportedly caused their relationship to sour. This extensive history between Thibodeau and Butler is bound to add some intrigue as one of the major themes of this upcoming Knicks-Heat best-of-seven.
Butler has been playing the best basketball of his career in this postseason, scoring a career-high 56 points in their Game 4 win. He then followed it up with 42 points on 17-of-33 shooting, eight rebounds, four assists, two steals, and a block to eliminate the Bucks in the following contest. Thibodeau will have to find a way to slow his former star player down if New York is to advance to its first Eastern Conference Finals since 2000.
Miami’s starting center Bam Adebayo, who put up a 20-10-10 triple double in their closeout win over Milwaukee, will be another crucial player to monitor in this series. Adebayo needs to give Butler consistent support on offense and he will have his hands full leading the Heat’s undersized frontcourt against Robinson and company on the other end of the floor.
If Miami’s two-time NBA All-Star can put up a better fight than Cleveland’s Allen and Mobley did, they should have a chance to take this series.
While neither of these teams are high scoring groups, the colorful cast of characters on both sides should be more than enough to ensure that this will be an entertaining series. These two franchises have a deep history with one another beyond Thibodeau and Butler dating back to the late 1990s when they faced each other in four consecutive postseasons.
Back then, those Knicks and Heats teams were known for their physicality which made their playoff meetings especially brutal. Curiously, their current iterations play a similar brand of basketball and it will not come as a surprise if this upcoming duel turns into a slugfest reminiscent of their rivalry’s heyday over 20 years ago.