The Knicks’ core players of Julius Randle, Jalen Brunson and RJ Barrett have struggled to work together against the Heat.
When you think of adjustments on the fly during the postseason, New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau may not be the first name to pop into your head. In fact, the head coach standing on the opposite side of the floor to him in the 2023 Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Miami Heat’s Erik Spoelstra, may be one of the best coaches at this practice — throwing many different looks on the floor and seeing what sticks against any particular rotation.
In this postseason, despite what felt like a dominant gentleman’s sweep against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Knicks have felt like they are lacking in the department of new looks and fresh lineups against an ever-evolving Heat team. The Knicks did make one change, though, and that has given them a challenge: the addition of Josh Hart to the starting rotation over Quentin Grimes, who started with the “Mid 3” of Jalen Brunson, Julius Randle and RJ Barrett for much of their successful regular season.
This change hasn’t exactly been fruitful in their series against the Heat. Between spacing issues with Barrett and Randle, the lack of scoring threat in Hart leading to easy double- and triple-teaming of Brunson, and the lack of shooting that Hart provides despite him having the best three-point shooting percentage in the postseason for New York so far, it’s been less of a successful experiment and more of a headache for viewers of the last three games so far. But it is far from the main problem, as these three tend to either only have one player going or none, regardless of any rotational changes.
Their inability to form any sort of chemistry, either in the regular season or so far in this postseason, is ominous. For Brunson as mentioned above, without the scoring threat in Grimes in this second round, Miami has thrown what can only be described as a wall at him every time he attempts to touch the paint, daring him to make up for the lack in three-point shooting with some long-range effectiveness himself. As a result, he has been shooting just 28% from deep. This is not his forte, and he’s attempting two more threes per game on average compared to his last postseason appearance with the Dallas Mavericks.
In addition to scoring troubles, Brunson has been needed to hold onto the rock more often with the Knicks’ lack of scoring, resulting in more turnovers. Despite this, he has averaged 5.1 assists in the playoffs. Overall, he is being forced to try from deep more often than he usually would with Hart on the floor and with Randle and Barrett not exactly marksmen themselves.
When we look at how Barrett has fared, it’s murkier — and for good reason. Barrett has probably been the Knicks’ best starter so far in this series, scoring consistently and picking apart Miami’s defense despite Hart being on the floor and lacking space to work as much as he can. He is shooting 44% from the field, attempting 15.2 shots per game and has been efficient against a very strong Miami defense.
What could help him immensely is having more space to work with as he had in the regular season with Grimes, but he has not been afforded that opportunity alongside Hart. With more floor open to him, especially in the paint, he could cause problems for Jimmy Butler who often guards him and for Bam Adebayo in his attempt to protect the rim. His three-point shooting could be better — sitting at 31% this postseason — but his post work is what the Knicks need to exploit the most. He gets the most touches in this area, and is the most successful there, too, scoring 0.80 points per touch in the post.
Now, we turn to Randle. The Knicks’ lone All-Star has had the unpleasant task of needing to play through injury, having sprained his ankle right before the postseason began and again during their series against the Cav. He’s been hot and cold on both ends of the floor, with the games where he is on offensively being his better games on defense and the games where he is cold being the ones where he seems less interested in getting back on defense.
In terms of scheming on offense, the Knicks put the ball in his hands often. He is strong and able to get to the post easily against most defenders. But in their series against Miami, he has been challenged with many double teams that force him to either pass the ball out almost blindly or to get a tough shot off, which he has struggled to do. But his passing is key in this series and for the Knicks’ postseason in general.
Randle is an underrated passer, capable of exploiting the double teams he sees to aid in getting the rest of the team going. As New York struggles to find their flow on offense, Randle looking to be more a facilitator first and a scorer second in times where it’s next to impossible for him to score would be pivotal to forcing Miami’s defense to fold and play more isolation instead of just throwing everything at him and waiting for his usual tough turnaround attempt to get off.
The “Mid 3” cannot win a series alone. The Knicks’ bench as well as fellow starters Mitchell Robinson and Grimes need to step up, as well, and try and make life difficult for the Heat instead of playing as hesitantly as they have been on offense. Hopefully, with Grimes back in the starting lineup, they will be able to get some of their routine back from the regular season that propelled them to the postseason in the first place.