May 31, 2023

MIAMI – A Knicks season that began with mild expectations and turned into what some fans called the team’s most exciting run in more than 20 years ended Friday night with a 96-92 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the half finals of the Eastern Conference.

After the Heat defeated the Milwaukee Bucks — the East’s No. 1 seed and NBA title favorites — in the first round, a path to the Eastern Conference Finals for the Knicks seemed plausible. The fifth-seeded Knicks had just beaten the Cavaliers, the talented fourth seed led by guard Donovan Mitchell. The Heat, on the other hand, arrived in the second round without guard Tyler Herro, who averaged 20.1 points per game in the regular season, but broke his hand against the Bucks.

But as the Knicks’ series began with Miami, the difference between these two teams became clear: The Heat has a legitimate star player in Jimmy Butler, who can seemingly lead his team to wins when he wants to. The Knicks don’t.

Most NBA fans have probably gotten used to Butler taking his game to the next level in the playoffs, and this postseason has followed suit. He cut the Knicks with high-scoring games and great defensive efforts. He averaged 24.8 points, 6.5 assists and 7.0 rebounds per game against the Knicks going into Game 6.

Butler, a six-time All-Star, often plays at that level during the regular season, but is arguably the best player in these playoffs, leading a group of undrafted starters that many casual NBA fans may have to Google to find out. know.

On the other hand, the Knicks’ best players, Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle, have fluctuated between looking formidable enough to lead this team to the Eastern Conference Finals and looking unrefreshed for this leg. Brunson acknowledged his struggles in the Game 1 loss of this series when he shot 0 for 7 on 3-pointers and said he was “horrific”.

Randle, who was the Knicks’ only All-Star selection this season and made a full NBA team, was nothing 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 only averaged 16.8 points and 8 rebounds in the playoffs heading into Game 6. Randle struggles with an ankle injury that put him out of Game 1 against the Heat, but he’s faced playoff contention before.

The Knicks’ last appearance in the playoffs was two seasons ago, when Randle looked great again in the 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 in the first round of the playoffs against the Atlanta Hawks, he faltered, averaging 18.0 points and 11.6 rebounds despite averaging 37.3 points in the teams’ three regular season games—his most against any opponent. The Hawks knocked out the Knicks in five quick games.

After the Knicks lost 3-1 in this Heat series, Randle questioned the team’s desire.

“Maybe they want it more,” Randle said in response to a question about the Knicks’ poor offensive rebound and little aggression for loose balls. “I don’t know. That’s who we’ve been all year, and we need to find a way to step forward and make those moves if we want to keep this season alive.

The Knicks responded in Game 5, holding off a late comeback attempt by the Heat in a game where Brunson looked like the best player on both teams.

While Friday’s loss was particularly disappointing, as it looked like the Knicks could have had a deeper run, they still outperformed this season, and performances like Brunson’s in Game 5 are a sign that this team has some of has the right pieces ahead.

Last season, the Knicks finished 11th in the East, with questions about the future of Coach Tom Thibodeau and Randle. In the off-season, as usual, the Knicks lacked the best free agents and didn’t trade them for Mitchell, who has 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 second-round pick in 2025 for tampering.

With Brunson, the Knicks became one of the more surprising teams in the NBA this season as Brunson and Randle put together a thrilling one-two. Defeating Mitchell’s team in the first round was a statement of sorts for those who have questioned the Knicks’ decision not to trade for him.

“Because we’re here, we play with house money,” Teddy Foran, 24, who grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, said after Game 1 against the Heat. He became a Knicks fan while growing up watching games with his father.

He added: “What we did in the off-season with keeping the young core has been amazing. Don’t sell out to Donovan, as you see, if you sell out to Donovan, you lose in five in the first round. So you know if we lose the second round, it’s not a big deal.”

Many fans had gathered and partied on Seventh Avenue after wins as Brunson and Randle led the Knicks on their deepest playoff run since 2013, when they also lost in the second round. The team last made it to the NBA Finals in 1999 and the Conference Finals in 2000. But maybe these Knicks have finally done enough to make this team attractive to the big star players they’ve been desperately chasing and missing in the offseason.