MIAMI — A Knicks season that began with modest expectations and what some fans called the team’s most spectacular run in more than 20 years ended with a 96-92 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Friday night.
After the Heat swept the Milwaukee Bucks — the East’s No. 1 seed and NBA title favorites — in the first round, a path to the Eastern Conference Finals seemed plausible for the Knicks. The fifth-seeded Knicks defeated the talented fourth-seeded Cavaliers, led by guard Donovan Mitchell. In contrast, the Heat arrived in the second round without guard Tyler Hero, who averaged 20.1 points per game in the regular season but broke his hand against the Bucks.
But once the Knicks’ series with Miami began, the difference between these two teams became clear: The Heat have a legitimate star player in Jimmy Butler who can make his team win when he chooses. No Knicks.
Most NBA fans are probably used to Butler elevating his game in the playoffs, and he’s followed suit this postseason. He led the Knicks with high-scoring games and stellar defensive efforts. He averaged 24.8 points, 6.5 assists and 7.0 rebounds against the Knicks heading into Game 6.
A six-time All-Star, Butler often plays at that position during the regular season, but has been the best player in these playoffs that many casual NBA fans should know about through a Google search.
On the other hand, the Knicks’ best players, Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle, have fluctuated between looking strong enough to lead this team to the Eastern Conference Finals and looking unworthy of the position. Brunson acknowledged his struggles in the series’ Game 1 loss, saying he was “horrible” when he shot 0 for 7 on 3-pointers.
Randle, who was the Knicks’ lone All-Star selection this season and made the All-NBA team, hasn’t looked like that player in these playoffs. In the regular season, he averaged a double-double of 25.1 points and 10.0 rebounds per game but averaged just 16.8 points and 8 rebounds in the playoffs heading into Game 6. Randle missed Game 1 against him with an ankle injury. Heat, but he’s had playoff struggles before.
The Knicks’ last appearance in the playoffs came two seasons ago, and Randle again had a stellar regular season, making his first All-Star team and averaging a double-double with 24.1 points and 10.2 rebounds per game in the regular season. But he faltered in the first round of the playoffs against the Atlanta Hawks, averaging 18.0 points and 11.6 rebounds despite averaging 37.3 points in the team’s three regular-season contests. The Hawks eliminated the Knicks in five quick games.
After the Knicks fell behind 3-1 in the Heat series, Randle questioned the team’s will.
“Maybe they like it too much,” Randle said in response to a question about the Knicks’ poor offense and little aggression for loose balls. “I don’t know. We’ve been like that all year, and if we want to keep this season alive, we’ve got to find a way to make those plays.
The Knicks responded in Game 5, holding off a late comeback attempt from the Heat in a game when Brunson looked like the better player on either team.
While Friday’s loss was especially disappointing because it looked like the Knicks might have made a deep run, they’ve accomplished more this season, and a performance like Brunson’s in Game 5 is a sign that some of the right pieces have stepped up on this team.
Last season, the Knicks finished 11th in the East with questions about the future of coach Tom Thibodeau and Randle. In the off-season, the Knicks, as usual, missed out on top free agents and didn’t trade for Mitchell, who said he thought the Jazz would give him to the Knicks, not the Cavaliers. Instead, the Knicks signed Brunson, a former Dallas guard, in a move that cost them a 2025 second-round pick.
With Brunson, the Knicks became one of the most surprising teams in the NBA this season, as Brunson and Randle formed a formidable one-two punch. Losing Mitchell in the first round was a statement to those who questioned the Knicks’ decision not to trade him.
“Being here, we’re playing with house money,” Teddy Foran, 24, who grew up in Stamford, Conn., said after the game against Heat 1. He became a Knicks fan while watching games with his father growing up.
He added: “What we did with the young center in the off-season was great. As you can see, don’t sell for Donovan, if you sell for Donovan, you’ll lose five in the first round. So you know it’s okay if we lose in the second round.
After Brunson and Randle led the Knicks on their deepest playoff run since 2013 after losing in the second round, many fans gathered on Seventh Avenue after victories. The team last reached the NBA Finals in 1999 and the Conference Finals in 2000. But the Knicks may have finally done enough to lure this team to the marquee star players they’ve been chasing so desperately every off-season and missed.