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NBA playoffs: Slowing down Jimmy Butler is Knicks’ No. 1 priority

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - APRIL 26: Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat is defended by Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs at Fiserv Forum on April 26, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  The Heat defeated the Bucks in overtime 128-126. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Jimmy Butler has been a handful in these playoffs. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) (Stacy Revere via Getty Images)

No. 5 New York Knicks vs. No. 8 Miami Heat

Game 1: Heat at Knicks, 1 p.m. ET Sunday (ABC)

Game 2: Heat at Knicks, TBD Tuesday (TNT)

Game 3: Knicks at Heat, TBD Saturday (ABC)

Game 4: Knicks at Heat, TBD May 8 (TNT)

Game 5: Heat at Knicks, TBD May 10 (TNT)*

Game 6: Knicks at Heat, TBD May 12 (ESPN)*

Game 7: Heat at Knicks, TBD May 15 (TNT)*

*if necessary

BetMGM series odds: No. 5 Knicks -160, No. 8 Heat +135

Other conference semifinals previews:
Denver Nuggets vs. Phoenix Suns: Can Nuggets slow down Suns’ offense to kick off Round 2?

Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers: Sixers' Joel Embiid (if healthy), Celtics' Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown pose matchup problems

Everyone had the Knicks and Heat in their brackets, right? Surely few basketball observers expected both New York and Miami to handle the Cleveland Cavaliers and the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, respectively, in just five games apiece. Yet here these classic rivals from the ’90s are set to square off beginning at Madison Square Garden at 1 p.m. ET Sunday.

The Knicks’ defense smothered Cleveland while Mitchell Robinson and Josh Hart feasted on the offensive glass, particularly in New York’s series-clinching Game 5 victory. Miami’s defense has ranked one spot above the Knicks, good for third best in the entire postseason, setting the stage for what certainly appears to be a physical slugfest on paper.

3 keys to the series

Can the Knicks slow Jimmy Butler?

Miami’s six-time All-Star centerpiece dominated Milwaukee to the tune of 37.6 points, six rebounds and 4.8 assists per game on 59.7% shooting from the field and 44.4% from beyond the arc. The Bucks’ inability to slow Butler, and the lack of time Giannis Antetokounmpo spent attempting to guard Miami’s leading scorer, has squarely placed Mike Budenholzer’s job in jeopardy. How Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks staff schemes for Butler’s methodical attacks toward the rim will be critical to New York’s chances of advancing to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2000.

Quentin Grimes, one of New York’s premier perimeter defenders, has been battling a shoulder injury that left him sidelined for Game 5. Josh Hart, who started in Grimes’ place, as well as Knicks forward R.J. Barrett, are strong options to throw at Butler. Reserve guard Immanuel Quickley has been New York’s most impactful pest on the defensive side of the floor, but the Sixth Man of the Year finalist will sacrifice quite a bit of size in a potential Butler assignment.

The status of Julius Randle’s ankle injury

After returning to All-Star form this year following a down 2021-22 campaign, Julius Randle missed the final five games of the regular season nursing a left ankle sprain. While Randle returned for much of the Knicks' first-round clash with the Cavaliers, the high-scoring forward aggravated the injury with 1:17 left in the first half of Game 5. Randle did not play after intermission and returned to the sidelines in street clothes.

The Knicks still finished off Cleveland, of course, and were 6-4 in the team’s last 10 games without Randle. But losing 25.1 points and 4.1 assists per night is still a massive wrinkle over a seven-game series in which certain faucets for both teams run hot and cold.

Slow pace will require crunch-time efficiency

New York and Miami both finished the regular season as bottom-five teams in terms of pace. Put this matchup in a playoff environment and this series projects to be a slow grind replete with bumps and bruises in the paint.

Those types of games also set the stage for critical shotmaking in the fourth quarter, as limited possessions inherently increase the value of each final chance at hanging points on the board. Miami may have been the 8th seed, dropping a home contest and requiring two chances in the play-in tournament to advance to the playoffs, but the Heat led the NBA in clutch wins this season with 32. Meanwhile, New York’s star free-agent addition, Jalen Brunson, finished fourth in the league in clutch scoring during the regular season.