It’s been 23 years since the New York Knicks reached the Eastern Conference finals, and 24 since their last NBA Finals appearance.
And, to get there both times, the Knicks had to fight their way through the Miami Heat.
From 1997 to 2000, the two teams — in the wake of then-coach Pat Riley going from the Knicks to the Heat in 1995 — engaged in one battle after another, with each of those series going the distance.
Those intense showdowns, perhaps peaking during the 1998 playoffs when then-Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy was wrapped around Heat center Alonzo Mourning’s leg during an in-game skirmish, have created a level of enmity that might not exist among current players but is still strong among both franchise’s fan bases.
“It’s great,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, an assistant on those Knicks teams, said. “The players, they’re too young, some of them probably weren’t even born. But for the older people that have been around, it’s part of the history, it’s fun. If you love competition, that’s what it’s all about.”
“I don’t think it matters to the locker rooms,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who also was an assistant back then under Riley, said. “And that’s OK. Those battles were so long ago. It probably means something to the organizations, but ultimately this is about trying to accomplish something huge.”
Sunday (1 p.m. ET on ABC) will see the Knicks and Heat engage in their latest playoff showdown: the Eastern Conference semifinals kicking off at Madison Square Garden.
There will be plenty of reminders from those Knicks-Heat clashes. In addition to both coaches, Allan Houston and Mourning — stars for the Knicks and Heat, respectively, in those battles — now have front-office roles with their franchises. Riley is still in charge of the Heat, as he has been since he left New York nearly 30 years ago. Much of his staff still is in place.
There were plenty of other memories on display last week when the Knicks hosted the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round. Latrell Sprewell was courtside. John Starks and Larry Johnson were shown on the Jumbotron. All three were among the cacophonous noise that overwhelmed Cleveland in both of those victories and sent fans spilling out onto Seventh Avenue in celebration.
There will be a different feel to things, however, when the Knicks and Heat meet again. But this classic rivalry has been reborn.
“It’s like seeing an old friend after so many years,” one longtime Heat executive told ESPN. “You pick up right where you left off.”
While the two franchises have plenty of historic beef, a trip to the Eastern Conference finals is at stake. And ahead of Sunday’s Game 1 at MSG, here’s what could decide Knicks-Heat, the most surprising second-round matchup of the 2023 NBA playoffs.
1. What does Jimmy Buckets have for an encore?
Jimmy Butler followed up his 56-game masterpiece to help Miami author a comeback from down 14 in the fourth quarter of Game 4 with a 42-point showing in Game 5, once again helping Miami recover from being down 16 in the fourth to stun the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in overtime and end their season.
For Miami to advance to the East finals, Butler is going to need a repeat performance. Especially with Tyler Herro sidelined with a broken hand, the onus will be on Butler to lift the Heat.
Butler will face Thibodeau, his former coach with the Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves. Not only does New York have a few big-bodied athletic wings to potentially throw at Butler — Josh Hart, Quentin Grimes and RJ Barrett — but Thibodeau will presumably send more double-teams at Butler. Throughout their entire first-round defeat, the Bucks threw just seven double teams at Butler, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
2. What is Julius Randle‘s injury status?
The All-Star forward suffered a sprained ankle late in the regular season that put his availability for New York’s first-round series against Cleveland in doubt. Then, after returning yet struggling in that series, Randle reinjured the ankle in Game 5.
When asked Friday about Randle’s status, Thibodeau said Randle, “didn’t do much today, but he’s feeling a little bit better.
“So go through the rehab, see where he is [Saturday]. He’s better today than he was [Thursday], and that was the big thing. So we’re hopeful.”
Randle shot just 33.8% for the series against Cleveland, including 8-for-34 from 3-point range. If Randle does take the court, going against smaller Heat defenders compared to Cleveland bigs Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen inside should help.
3. Can Miami’s hot 3-point shooting continue?
During the regular season, the Heat ranked 27th in 3-point shooting, hitting 34.4%. While taking virtually the same number of 3s per game during the playoffs, that number rose to 45%, which is tops among the 16-team field. (Miami also went from the 25th-ranked regular-season offense to second during the playoffs.)
New York was fourth in the NBA in offense in the regular season, and should be equipped to outpace Miami — particularly with Heat marksman Herro injured. Miami will need shooters such as Duncan Robinson, Max Strus, Kevin Love, Gabe Vincent and Kyle Lowry to keep burying triples.
4. Which side will control the glass?
Led by center Mitchell Robinson and Hart, the Knicks dominated the offensive glass in the first round, repeatedly taking advantage of a Cavaliers team that ranked 20th in defensive rebounding rate during the regular season routinely playing with a two-big lineup.
The Knicks are unlikely to enjoy a similar advantage in this series, with Miami posting the fourth-best defensive rebounding rate during the regular season. Much of the paint battle could hinge around Love, who at 34 years old remains an excellent rebounder and shooter.
But if New York is able control the offensive boards the same way it did against Cleveland, those second chances will become massive for the Knicks’ offense.
5. What will Bam Adebayo bring offensively?
Much of Miami’s ability to compete in this series will hinge on the Heat, an offensively challenged team all season, continuing to find ways to score. While Butler has shown he can carry Miami’s offense virtually on his own, Adebayo’s effectiveness alongside him will be key.
The Bucks repeatedly dared Adebayo to shoot from the elbow during their first-round series, choosing to have center Brook Lopez sit back near the rim. New York has a similar rim threat in Robinson. But if Adebayo is feeling good — he has been dealing with a hamstring strain — and can provide an offensive punch — he put up a triple-double in Miami’s Game 5 series-clincher — it could make the difference when Thibodeau decides to throw two defenders at the red-hot Butler.