Knicks’ X-factor vs. Heat in 2023 NBA Playoffs, and it’s not Julius Randle

It’s easy to not take the Knicks seriously because they’re, well, the Knicks. No matter how much you love them, they’re not serious people. The years of badness and weirdness engendered an inertia, a deep rooted cynicism that any scrap of Knicks success must be a joke or a bit somehow. As such, in the lead up to their 4-1 demolition of the ballyhooed Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round, the Knicks were overlooked and underestimated, never mind  that they’d been the league’s very best team since the trade deadline. But now, with home-court advantage in the second round of the playoffs against the Miami Heat, the Knicks have a legitimate chance to make the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2000. These are joyous, exciting times for the Knicks and the performance of Josh Hart, RJ Barrett and the Knicks wings will be the X-factor in prolonging them.

The Knicks beat the Cavs for many reason (Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell wilted, Mitchell Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein stole the souls of the Cavs’ big men), but the play of Hart and, eventually Barrett, might’ve been the most pronounced. Whereas the Cavs struggled to wring any production at all from Caris Levert, Isaac Okoro and Cedi Osman, Hart and Barrett each spent sizable portions of the series looking like the best player on the court.

With Julius Randle hobbled and the Cavs big men fortressing the paint, Hart and Barrett became unexpected, unconventional offensive hubs. In particular, Hart terrorized Cleveland on the offensive glass; the Knicks grabbed 20.6 percent more offensive rebounds with Hart in the game and scored an extra 19.0 points per 100 missed shots as a result. He got rebounds that “broke” the Cavs. Similarly, Hart injected some pace into a team that played at the fifth-slowest tempo all year. Unable to break down the Cavs’ top-ranked defense in the halfcourt, Hart simply refused to let the offense get bogged down in the half-court, quickly pushing the ball down court off of rebounds. Accordingly, the Knicks added 6.2 points per 100 possessions through live rebound transition opportunities alone with Hart on the floor.

While Josh Hart translated his role player tendencies into a superstar-level impact, RJ Barrett straight up played like a superstar for most of the series. After a cataclysmically bad two games to start the playoffs, Barrett put together the best three game stretch of his career as the Knicks closed out the Cavs, averaging 22.0 points and 4.7 rebounds on 55.8 percent shooting while also hounding Garland and Mitchell on defense. All the bad habits and flawed processes that have doomed Barrett’s first four years have receded from view. He’s driving with more control, actually processing and reacting to the defense rather than headstrongly flinging himself at the rim; he’s staying attached to the ball-handler when guarding the pick-and-roll, no longer slamming directly into the screen like Sideshow Bob stepping on a rake; he’s making his layups. When the Knicks lavished Barrett with a massive contract extension last off-season, this was the player they imagined he would become.

Against Jimmy Butler, though, Hart and Barrett will be forced to match up with perhaps the best basketball player in the world at the moment. While the Knicks guards and bigs have marked advantages over their counterparts on the Heat, Butler has the power to singlehandedly will the Heat to four wins over the Knicks—for proof, just rewatch how he just the putative best team in the NBA basically on his own. In Hart and Butler, the Knicks are perhaps the only team with two high level wings who can match Butler’s physicality and toughness; Butler, presumably, won’t be able to ragdoll the Knicks the way he tossed around Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton. To wit, Quentin Grimes, the Knicks best perimeter defender, should return from a shoulder injury at some point during the series, giving the Knicks another body to throw at Butler.

The Knicks don’t have any one player who can truly consider themselves Butler’s peer. Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle are the Knicks’ polar stars, but Brunson’s ceiling is capped by his shortness and Randle is too injured and moody to sustain prolonged stretches of brilliance.

Accordingly, the Knicks’ fate in the playoffs will be determined by whether Josh Hart and RJ Barrett (and eventually Grimes) can approximate Butler’s production by committee. Barrett carries whiffs of Butler’s bruising, ground-bound scoring; Hart offers all the intangible toughness and grit that Butler provides. In the first round against the Cavs, the pair combined for 29 points, 12 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game; to beat the Heat, they’ll need to at least maintain that kind of production.


The post Knicks’ X-factor vs. Heat in 2023 NBA Playoffs, and it’s not Julius Randle appeared first on ClutchPoints.

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