NEW YORK — After a training staffer laid a blue towel on the floor before his locker, Gabe Vincent plopped his back onto the cushioning and stretched his sneakers onto his seat, where he had just been resting. Miami’s starting point guard closed his eyes and draped a black T-shirt over his face, meditating, shut off from the world, even with his head positioned mere inches from the entryway to the Heat’s pregame dressing area inside Madison Square Garden.
Vincent started the ritual during Miami’s upset series victory over the top-seeded Bucks.
“I just needed some time, just trying to lock in,” Vincent told Yahoo Sports. “Sometimes I’m envisioning certain situations, as [the] last series went on. A lot of times it’s just breathing, trying to get my thoughts back to breathing. Just being very mindful of my breaths, and then when my mind wanders, just try to bring it back.”
He was certainly primed for the game’s opening few sequences, when Vincent notched Miami’s first five points, a tough pull-up jumper on the left baseline and then a 3-pointer on the right wing off a feed from Jimmy Butler’s drive. Vincent paced Miami in first-half scoring, leading the Heat with 14 points after Miami clawed back to within five at intermission. Vincent would finish with 20 points and 5 assists in the Heat’s 108-101 Game 1 East semifinal victory over New York, leading all Miami players in plus-minus.
“Even though he’s a young player in the league, we view him like a veteran player,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said of the 26-year-old guard.
Vincent has been integral for the Heat since his insertion into the starting lineup on Feb. 4, allowing crafty veteran Kyle Lowry to function as a spark plug off the bench. His importance to this team has only grown since Miami lost Tyler Herro to a broken wrist and Victor Oladipo to another season-ending injury. While Butler’s 42 points in Miami’s series-clinching victory over Milwaukee rightfully stole the headlines in Game 5 against the Bucks, remember Vincent’s huge pull-up triple with 8.1 seconds left in regulation first put the Heat in position for Butler's miraculous tying flip at the buzzer.
“We frankly do need Gabe to be more aggressive. And he’s doing it within the context of our offense,” Spoelstra said. “We do need him to put some points on the board and at least make the defense play him. Maybe they make an adjustment in the next game, and he’s fit in as a facilitator long enough that he can fit in that role as well.”
Miami is right back where they were against those Bucks, stealing Game 1 on the road. One Heat staffer told Yahoo Sports in the pregame the team just needed to take one of these two opening matchups in Manhattan. Perhaps Miami can get greedy and swipe a second on Tuesday night before this series shifts to South Beach.
How ready Butler will be for Game 2 remains to be seen. Butler posted another typical postseason performance, leading Miami with 25 points, including finishes from a flurry of third-quarter outlet passes from Kevin Love that mimicked touchdown heaves from new Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was sitting courtside. Yet with just over five minutes remaining in the contest, the momentum already in favor of Miami, Butler drove into the paint and landed awkwardly on Josh Hart’s lime green sneakers, leaving the All-Star forward rolling on the court in pain and slamming the floor in agony.
Much of the Heat bench and training staff came to help Butler off the ground and back to the team’s huddle, where he insisted Spoelstra let him stay in the game. When Butler returned to action following the timeout, he walked gingerly to the foul line and calmly sank both free throws, but Butler was a spectator for the game’s final minutes of offense, standing mostly in the corner. Spoelstra told reporters it’s far too early to determine the severity of what he said was a sprained right ankle.
“I don’t even know if we’ll know more by tomorrow,” Spoelstra said.
If Butler can’t go Tuesday, we saw a preview of Miami’s offense with him neutralized. Lowry took the rock from Vincent and ran pick-and-roll with Bam Adebayo to ice the Heat’s series-opening victory with a few pull-up midrange buckets. Lowry sprinkled in a handful of crafty possessions on the other end of the floor, stripping R.J. Barrett on his gather at the rim and forcing an errant pass from Jalen Brunson while switching a guard-guard screen.
“He made three or four just veteran, physical, heady and savvy plays defensively that you can’t really teach,” Spoelstra said. “You have to match competitive wills with competitive wills, and Kyle is one of those guys.”
All this after Lowry’s name was floated on the February trade market and after Miami slogged through a regular season that left the Heat mired with the uphill battle of a play-in for the No. 8 seed. The Heat didn’t land the power forward they were searching for before the deadline either, and yet Love and fellow veteran Cody Zeller and Swiss army knife Caleb Martin hung tough — in addition to Adebayo — with the Knicks’ aggressive frontline that outrebounded Cleveland into oblivion in their opening-round matchup. And Miami now finds itself three victories from consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference finals, its third in four seasons, while a once-delirious Garden crowd left the stadium in a hush and into the Sunday rain.