Pat Riley holds a special place in the pantheon of Knicks villains. If New York wants to stick it to him, Julius Randle must be dominant.
In many ways, the Miami Heat are the New York Knicks’ truest rival.
Sure, Michael Jordan owning the team for most of the 1990s fueled animosity for the Chicago Bulls. Boston versus New York or New York versus Philadelphia is geographically convenient for a rivalry, and yes “F*** Trae Young” remains a Garden classic, however, it is the Heat who have all the true ingredients for a blood rival.
For all intents and purposes, the Heat are a team conceived in the image of the Knicks. Pat Riley literally quit on the Knicks on their team bus, and did what most New Yorkers do when they are tired of this city – he fled to Miami. There, Riley became the team president and head coach for Heat owner Micky Arison, a childhood Knicks fan.
Since his departure, Riley’s shadow has always been somewhere in the background. The first iterations of the Heat teams under Riley looked a lot like Riley’s Knicks. That triggered some of the most watchably unwatchable playoff basketball the league has ever seen. Just ask Tom Thibodeau and Rick Brunson if they remember those sub-100-point playoff games of the late ‘90s.
The Knicks got their measure of revenge over Riley and the Heat in 1999 when Allan Houston sent the top-seeded Heat packing, making the Knicks the second eighth-seed to pull off an upset in Round One.
As time moved on, Riley had his fair share of revenge. He won his fifth and final title as a head coach in 2006, and in 2010 did what the Knicks could not. The Knicks made no secret about their big plans following the 2009-10 season. They were going to end their years of ineptitude with LeBron James and whoever James wanted to bring with him. The plan was to sell LeBron on the glitz and glamour of New York City.
Instead, it was Riley and his rings who swooped in to land LeBron. Two titles later, LeBron was gone, but the Heat have managed to stay relevant in the Eastern Conference. They have also seemed to always have the upper hand over the Knicks, with Riley as the ultimate puppet master. The Knicks have one playoff win over Miami since the Jeff Van Gundy era, including Sunday’s Game 1 of the second round.
Heading into this series, the Knicks had to feel like they dodged a Giannis Antetokounmpo-sized bullet. The Milwaukee Bucks were a bad matchup for the Knicks all year, unlike the Heat, who the Knicks took three of four from. But as has been the case, Riley’s group found a way to ruin the Knicks’ plans.
Game 1 was an exercise in not allowing your opponent to force you into their game. The Heat won the game oin the margins. The Knicks shot a ghastly 7-for-34 from beyond the arc, while the Heat squeezed every bit of production from their veterans Kyle Lowry and Kevin Love.
Lowry seemed to nail every big shot he took. Love was the catalyst in the run that ultimately decided the game in the third quarter with a flurry of dazzling outlet passes with New York Jets star quarterback Aaron Rodgers watching from the sideline. Both outperformed Jalen Brunson, who in his own words was “horrific” in Game 1.
Brunson is a true leader for shouldering the blame, however, it doesn’t tell the full story. The Heat were chippy all game. Any time a Knick ventured into the paint, they were swarmed. With homecourt now in the Heat’s favor, the Knicks must board their plane to South Beach with the series tied.
This series is going to be a physical one and one that requires Mitchell Robinson to have some backup down low. One thing that became crystal clear as the Heat remained physical is that the Knicks will need their chief bully to win this series.
Julius Randle looked like he was going to play in Game 1. A tweaked ankle in the series clincher against the Cleveland Cavaliers made Randle’s absence less of a surprise. What was a surprise was just how much the Knicks missed him right away. The two areas the Heat excelled – outside shooting and physicality in the paint – are two areas Randle built his All-Star campaign on.
Randle averaged 21.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 4.8 assists in four games versus the Heat this season. If you take out the final game versus the Heat on March 29, when he initially injured his ankle, Randle averaged 27.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 6.0 assists.
The caveat with those stats is Randle’s 43-point masterclass makes these numbers more impressive than they are. That performance did lay out the blueprint for Randle, who was the missing piece on Sunday.
Zone defense has been the Achilles’ heel of the Knicks for some time. On Sunday, that zone wreaked havoc against the shooting-challenged Knicks. Had Randle not injured his ankle, he could have surpassed Evan Fournier’s team record for three-pointers made in a season – Randle still managed to surpass the previous record held by John Starks, with 218 makes from beyond the arc.
The 218 makes are almost 100 makes more than Randle’s first All-Star season in New York, when he hit 120 three-pointers. In Game 1 versus the Cavaliers, Randle proved his shooting touch does not need to warm up. Randle started that game with a pair of three-pointers that help the Knicks grab an early advantage before Brunson buried them in the second half.
His sharpshooting is as needed as his general presence on the floor. Obi Toppin is many things, but physical is not one of them. While Toppin was able to replicate Randle’s impact from deep – Toppin hit four of the team’s seven threes on Sunday – the physicality was not there.
Mitchell Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein fought, as did Josh Hart, but none of that compares to the force Randle can be when he throws his weight around. On top of his brute strength, Randle is athletic enough to deal with Love, or whatever small four the Heat throw his way on the perimeter.
The key for Randle is health. Thibodeau did not provide much clarity on Randle being a possibility for Game 2 during Sunday’s postgame.
“I just trust him and the medical staff to make that decision,” Thibodeau said. “So plan both ways: a plan with him going and a plan if he didn’t go. So, once they make a decision, that’s it. You live with it, and you got to figure it out. We have more than enough.”
There is some truth to Thibodeau’s words. The Knicks make half of their three-point attempts, and they win the game. But where are those makes going to come from? A good starting point is the guy who led the team in three-point makes.
From a legacy standpoint, this becomes a nearly identical opportunity that RJ Barrett had in front of him in round one. Barrett parlayed that opportunity into a four-game stretch (and counting) in which he is averaging 23.0 points per game on 54.0% shooting.
The Miami Heat already provided Randle with his iconic moment as a Knick. Once again, the Heat offer Randle a platform to cement his Knick legacy. There is no rival greater than the Heat.
Downing Pat Riley, possibly for good, would wash away any sour feelings fans have about Julius Randle. He has been the bedrock of the franchise’s reemergence, and with the way this series is unfolding, Randle has a chance to cement his Knick legacy.