While the history between the Knicks and Heat is the stuff of legends, the contentious, bloody years of the rivalry is more than 20 years in the past. For context, RJ Barrett wasn’t born yet when a Patrick Ewing dunk finished off an 83-82 Game 7 win in the 2000 conference semifinals. But in the modern NBA, with scoring reaching wild numbers and 30-point performances a nightly occurrence, there may be no other teams more willing to engage in a throwback series.
The Knicks and Heat were never supposed to be here, meeting in the Eastern Conference semifinals. But the Knicks upset the Cleveland Cavaliers in a dominating five-game performance. And the Heat, needing a play-in just to make the playoffs, fought back from double-digit fourth-quarter deficits in Games 4 and 5 to shock the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, four games to one. It’s been nearly 30 years since two teams seeded fifth or lower met in a playoff series.
Both teams fought through injuries and adversity to get here. And at their heart, both teams still have as their most obvious characteristic an old-school mentality, pushing aside excuses and simply outworking the opposition. And if there are any NBA teams who could happily slog through an 83-82 game these are the ones.
“I think the way this team plays, it resonates with all our fans,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said on Wednesday night. “They play hard, they play smart and they play together. And I think if you do that in New York, it's always recognized.”
KNICKS-HEAT PLAYOFF HISTORY
The Knicks and Heat have met five times in the playoffs with the Knicks winning three of the series. The Knicks are 14-15 against Miami in the postseason.
1997 — Conference semis: Heat in 7
1998 — First round: Knicks in 5*
1999 — First round: Knicks in 5*
2000 — Conference semis: Knicks in 7
2012 — First round: Heat in 5
At the head of that attitude is Jalen Brunson, an undersized point guard who has been underrated through every phase of his career.
"It starts with holding each other accountable, from the coaching staff to the players,” Brunson said after the Knicks finished off the Cavs with Julius Randle watching the second half in street clothes after reinjuring his left ankle. “I think we all trust each other, most importantly. It gets to the point where we have situations like that, things aren’t going according to plan, we just find a way to tough it out and keep moving forward and try not to miss a beat.”
In Miami, it is Jimmy Butler, who spent much of his career honing his skills — and his mindset — under Thibodeau in Chicago and Minnesota, and like Brunson, is a throwback to a different time. Asked about heading to this series, with the history between the teams, he shrugged.
“Yeah, honestly you’re asking the wrong person,” said Butler, who scored 56 and 42 points, respectively, in the Heat's two comeback wins over the Bucks. “I don’t care who we play. We’ve just got to beat them four times. I understand you’re trying to hype it up. But we’re going to go out there and compete. We’re going to be the better group. And we’re going to be together through good and through bad, just like we were in this series. So whether we play in Miami, whether we play in the Garden or we play in Rucker Park, we need to win four games.”
And when asked about the chance to face his former coach, he said, “I’m not worried about Thibs.”
Neither team seemed to worry about much of anything in their first-round series. Miami lost Tyler Herro with a broken hand and Victor Oladipo to a torn patellar tendon. The Knicks got Randle back for the playoffs after he missed the final five games of the regular season with a sprained left ankle, but he sprained it again Wednesday. Quentin Grimes missed the last three games of the series with a contused right shoulder and Jericho Sims underwent season-ending surgery Thursday on his right shoulder.
“I just think that as a team, we pride ourselves on just trying to be physically and mentally tough, because a lot of things during the course of a basketball game aren’t going to go as planned,” Brunson said. “You’re going to have moments where things aren’t going your way, when you're frustrated, but can you stay mentally and physically strong to keep moving forward?
"No matter what’s going on out there, look at each other, the five of us out there and we know we got a job to do. We gotta stick together and stay mentally tough through anything, whether it’s in a hostile environment or whether it’s at home. Doesn’t matter where we are. We gotta have that mental toughness.”
Game 1: at Knicks, Sunday, 1 p.m., ABC
Game 2: at Knicks May 2, TBD
Game 3: at Miami, May 6, TBD
Game 4: at Miami, May 8, TBD
* Game 5: at Knicks, May 10, TBD
* Game 6: at Miami, May 12, TBD
* Game 7: at Knicks, May 15, TBD