The Knicks have plenty to learn from the Nuggets and the Heat as they square off in the 2023 NBA Finals.
The 2023 NBA Finals have kicked off and fans of the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat are rejoicing at the opportunity to potentially see their squads get a championship ring. This matchup has been heralded as a basketball lover’s dream scenario. Both teams feature stars like Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray and Miami’s Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo as well a s impressive depth with role players like Bruce Brown, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Caleb Martin and Gabe Vincent.
It’s also a coaching matchup many have been looking forward to, with Erik Spoelstra and Michael Malone both being pretty formidable brains of their respective operations.
But even with all of the above being worth everyone’s viewing, it is still worth looking back at the New York Knicks’ playoff run to see exactly what these two teams have that New York did not. It boils down to a few key factors: lack of reliable shooting off the bench, the need for quick decision-making and simply being outcoached by Spoelstra in their series with the Knicks. Let’s dive into those three elements and how the Knicks were, unfortunately, lacking in those areas this postseason.
Reliable bench play
Much to the chagrin of Milwaukee, New York and Boston fans, none of Miami’s bench unit ever looked to be reverting back to pumpkins in their games against them leading up to this current Finals appearance. While the Knicks’ Immanuel Quickley, Josh Hart and Obi Toppin had two fairly up-and-down series against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Heat on offense, the Heat have been able to rely on the likes of Martin, Duncan Robinson, Max Strus and Kyle Lowry to boost their scoring off the bench and fill in any holes left by opposing teams’ defensive schemes against Butler or Adebayo.
For Denver, they’ve also been able to reap the rewards of their second unit, with Brown, Jeff Green and Christian Braun often supplying a burst of energy needed to separate themselves from the teams they’ve faced so far this postseason. While they have relied heavily on Jokic and Murray at times, they’ve found success in being able to lean on their facilitating as well, opening their offense up to those other rotational pieces that may not necessarily be relied on in crunch time but are utilized to the best of their ability.
Both benches for Miami and Denver have already been impactful in this Finals series, with the Heat’s Robinson showcasing his three-point making and shot selection off the bench and in a win for them in Game 2 and Bruce Brown offering a pop off the bench for Denver in their Game 1 victory.
The Knicks never had that go-to player in case of, for example, Julius Randle or RJ Barrett coming out the gate with less than needed offensively to help support Jalen Brunson.
Quick decision making
Another piece of the Knicks’ offense that had been working well for them throughout the regular season but not as much in the postseason was their selflessness with the ball and their ability to quickly make decisions when given the rock.
When looking at an offense like Denver’s, which operates like a well-oiled machine, it’s evident that a large part of postseason success and the ability to make it far in the postseason has to do with the ability to find the hot hand, and quickly. Same for Miami, as they continue to play unselfishly and are starting to show signs of being able to break down the Nuggets defense later in the shot clock.
For New York, a lot of their offense came from isolation plays. Brunson and Randle both accounted for many of their touches on that end of the floor, and unfortunately, they were unable to rely on many others on the team for consistent scoring. Had they been able to make adjustments with their offense and approaches to Miami’s defense which relied heavily on betting that the Knicks would not be erring on the side of ball movement rather than iso, they may have found more success in getting to the rim at the very least or even gotten someone like Quickley, Hart or Grimes more open looks to try and get into a rhythm.
Stagnant offense is not a proper approach to the increased level of activity we are seeing in the Finals this year and in years prior.
This is not shaping up to be a bashing of head coach Tom Thibodeau, as the Knicks won their first playoff series in a decade and are looking to do even more next season thanks in part to Thibodeau’s culture building with New York. But it was clear that his inability to get creative at times and respond to the adjustments made by Spoelstra hurt the team.
Take, for example, his favoring of Hart in the starting lineup for so long throughout the postseason despite a lineup featuring Grimes being far more successful on offense. It was clear that the switch back to Grimes was needed but happened too late, as he was never able to get into a rhythm from three-point range or as a slasher, and Hart was not able to help replicate the same intensity off the bench as he was able to when first traded to the team. This was preventable, but Thibodeau went with Hart because of the matchup with Butler, and the rest is history.
Meanwhile, Spoelstra was able to see what the Knicks were throwing his team’s way early on and adjusted accordingly, going with Kevin Love in this series, for example, after shying completely away from him in their Conference Finals bout with the Boston Celtics. Love made sense against the Knicks since they packed the paint for Miami and aimed to cut off its ability to score and rebound in that area without understanding one key flaw: neither mattered if the Heat’s shooters like Love, Lowry, Martin, Strus or Robinson were left wide open from three.
Malone is also known for making key adjustments, but he operates with a lot more in terms of weaponry on offense with Jokic and Murray. Thibodeau had Brunson, Randle, and Barrett to operate with, but their fit is still a question mark for this team, and it was difficult to scheme for one player while ensuring the benefit of the other amongst this trio in the postseason.
The Knicks are expected to make some moves this offseason in hopes of extending what is clearly a successful formula, and outside of head coaching, they must look to adding more reliable shooting or adjusting what their starting rotation looks like in a significant way if they want to improve and reach the caliber of play that both Denver and Miami have been able to reach this season.