The Miami Heat have become a completely different team compared to the regular season, they flipped the script on the NBA and are now one of the best teams in the postseason. It took an entire season for them to tune up to what Heat fans were expecting this year, but they are certainly enjoying the moment.
A slight ankle injury for Jimmy Butler during game one of the Eastern Conference semifinals was not going to keep him out of a crucial finale.
Butler looked at Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and said he was staying in the game, regardless of the pain he was enduring from his ankle after Knicks forward Josh Hart fouled him late in the fourth quarter.
“He reassured me that he wasn’t going to be a liability and he wanted to stay in there and make sure we get this win,” Erik Spoelstra said.
Butler recorded a double-double with 25 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and two steals while leading the eighth-seed Heat past the fifth-seed New York Knicks, 108-101, on Sunday afternoon.
“We’re just playing great basketball. We’re together, at home, on the road, through the good and through the bad. We believe that we can do something special,” Butler said in a postgame interview.
Gabe Vincent added 20 points for the Heat, while they continue to look nothing like a team that needed to win a play-in tournament game just to get the final and eighth postseason designation in the Eastern Conference.
Miami captured a game one victory behind toughness, determination and a tenacious defense from the start of the second quarter to the end of the game. A theme that has fit Miami very well when it has come to the postseason for the last three out of four seasons.
Miami trailed 32-21 exiting the first quarter and proceeded to outscore New York, 87-69, through the final three quarters. A large credit of that effort goes to the adjustments Heat coach Erik Spoelstra employed for his team after a flat first quarter display.
“It’s the playoffs, number one. You expect it to be tough. Two, just because the regular season didn’t go the way we wanted it to go or other people wanted it to go, doesn’t mean we weren’t developing grit and tough habits and good things. It wasn’t just from the play-in [tournament],” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
RJ Barrett scored 26 points and Jalen Brunson put up 25 of his own for the Knicks. They got off to a hot start in the first quarter and held the lead over Miami for almost the entire first half, meanwhile the Heat had other plans on their mind. They wanted to put the “city that never sleeps” to bed, as they shushed the crowd with a roaring second half performance.
Miami is not the only team in the series missing key players in Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo. The Knicks were without All-Star Julius Randle because of a sprained left ankle and they sorely missed him when the Heat condensed the paint and forced the Knicks to take shots from outside.
Getting Randle back is crucial for the Knicks to stay competitive in this series. He reinjured his ankle in Game 5 against Cleveland in the first round. He went through a workout before the game against the Heat, but the Knicks ruled him out before the start of the game.
“Any time you’re down, especially an All-Star like him, you’re going to miss him and we did tonight,” Knicks forward-guard RJ Barrett said.
The Heat were actually behind by 12 points in the second quarter, but that wasn’t going to disrupt a team that eliminated deficits of 15 and then 16 points in their final two games against first-seed Milwaukee. They would grind that Knicks lead down to five before halftime, despite only shooting 38-percent from the floor.
New York led 61-53 early in the third quarter until Kevin Love pulled out a three-point play to ignite the comeback rally for Miami. He would drain another three-point shot during the run, but the biggest moments were his three full-court passes in transition and an apparent audition for the NFL. It was impressive considering the new New York Jets quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, was in the arena watching the passing display.
Miami would gash the Knicks with that 21-5 run in the third quarter and build up to a double-digit lead in the fourth. They did it without a historic performance from Butler, like the ones he delivered in the first round, when he scored 56 and 42 points in the final two games to send the Bucks packing and watching the playoffs from home.
He did it by staying on the court after getting injured with five minutes remaining in regulation, after limping to the bench during a timeout before coming back out to shoot from the foul-line to extend Miami’s lead; ultimately leading them to a game one victory in the final minutes on the road in Madison Square Garden.
Butler’s leadership is what gave the Heat a flaming hot start in a renewal of what was once a dramatic playoffs rivalry in the late 1990’s. Both teams met four consecutive times in the postseason from 1997-2000, while the Knicks did win the last three of those four, they lost to the Heat in 2012 during Miami’s trip to a second NBA championship. Now Miami holds a one-game lead to open this year’s series and the Knicks home-court advantage has dwindled.
Jimmy Butler’s status remains unclear for game two on Tuesday night, after Heat coach Erik Spoelstra expressed to the media on Monday, “Same as last night, he’s doing treatment around the clock. We probably won’t have any update until before the game,” said Spoelstra.
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