The Miami Heat first round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks needed to be seen to be believed. After barely qualifying for the playoffs at all, the number eight seed took down the number one seed and one of the title favorites in five games, shocking the NBA world in the process.
That set up an intriguing second round series with the New York Knicks, another side who upset their higher ranked opponents to make their way into the Conference Semis. This looks likely to be a tough, low-scoring series, and while the Knicks will be tough to beat, the Heat have a few things going in their favor. These are three reasons why the Heat can beat the Knicks in the 2023 NBA Playoffs.
1. Jimmy Butler
This could probably be reason number one, two and three why the Heat can beat the Knicks. Butler is a freak, plain and simple. No other player in the league is as capable as he is of lifting their performance in the playoffs, as he has proven time and time again. Last season, he went from 21.4 points per game on 48% shooting in the regular season to 27.4 points per game on 50.6% shooting to lead the Heat to the Eastern Conference Finals, and this year he’s so far taken it to another level entirely.
Nobody could have predicted that the Heat would beat the Bucks in five games, but nobody could have expected Butler to do what he did, either. Lifting his game was expected, sure, but this was more than that. After a terrific Game 1 in which he accumulated 35 points on 15-27 shooting and 11 assists, he was very good in the next two games, though that was nothing compared to what he produced to seal the series in Games 4 and 5. Game 4 was a masterpiece, with 56 points leading the Heat to a five-point victory. The next game, of course, he brought them back from the brink with a game-tying layup in the dying seconds to send the game to overtime, in which the Heat won. He finished with 42 points.
The 37.6 points that he averaged in that series will be hard to match, but who really knows what this man is capable of? Time and time again he takes the concept of being clutch to another level, and with a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals up for grabs it’s easy to imagine him throwing his Heat teammates on his back once again.
2. Regression to the mean
The Knicks put on a brilliant defensive display in their opening round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, with their defensive rating of 101.9 the best thus far in the playoffs and an incredible eight better than what any team managed throughout the course of the regular season. But while that’s typical of a Tom Thibodeau coached team, it’s not reflective of the team that the Knicks were for their first 82 games of the season.
The Knicks were ranked 19th in defense over the course of the year, conceding 114.2 points per possession. Of course, playoffs are a different beast and it’s not uncommon for teams to lock in at the defensive end of the floor to a greater extent in the postseason, but an improvement of over 12 points per 100 possessions seems unsustainable. This should be a tight, relatively low-scoring series, but the Heat can score with a little more freedom against the Knicks defense than what the Cavs did.
3. The Heat’s ability to keep opponents off the line
Throughout the course of the season, the Knicks were one of the best teams in the league at getting to the free throw line. They averaged 25.5 free throws per game, less than only the Detroit Pistons and the Los Angeles Lakers, and it was a very similar story in their first round series, in which they picked up 25.4 shots per game from the charity stripe across their five outings. Unfortunately for the Knicks, the Heat are about as good as anyone in the league at keeping their opponents off the line.
In their 82 regular season games, the Heat gave up just 21.1 free throws a night, a little more than the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks, and less than every other team in the league. That number was similar in their opening round playoff series, in which they sent the Bucks to the line just 21.4 times per night. In what looms as a tight series, free throws may well play a significant role, and if the Heat can continue to be stingy in this regard it will go a long way to taking them to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Nothing will come easy in this series. The Heat have been a solid defensive team all year while the Knicks have taken things up a notch in that regard in the playoffs, and with Thibodeau at the helm will look to make this series a grind. Miami, however, has the best player in the series, potentially by a long way, in Jimmy Butler, and he can lead them to a second consecutive Eastern Conference Finals appearance.
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