NEW YORK -- Entering Game 1 of their second-round series on Sunday, the Miami Heat could not have anticipated needing to hold off the New York Knicks with their best player hobbling around on a sprained ankle. They knew, however, that they might need to win a game that looked nothing like the ones they'd just played in the first round.
The Heat shot 45 percent from 3-point range and scored 119 points per 100 possessions in five games against the Milwaukee Bucks. In the series opener at Madison Square Garden, they shot 33.3 percent from deep and came away with a 108-101 win anyway.
"We were expecting this game to be like this," Miami coach Erik Spoesltra said. "It's going to be a cage fight."
Leading up to the series, Spoelstra spoke glowingly of the Knicks for the way they protect the paint, take care of the ball and generate extra possessions. He said his team needed to be prepared for different pick-and-roll coverages and needed to find ways to get to their strengths. When the Heat scored just 21 points on 7-for-27 shooting (25.9 percent) in the first quarter, they weren't rattled. Down double-digits late in the second quarter, same thing.
"They're very aggressive," Spoelstra said. "But we were able to hang in there and understand it's a long game."
Miami led by three points when Jimmy Butler rolled his ankle with five minutes left in the game and stayed down for a while. He insisted on staying in the game, but, on offense, spent a lot of time standing in the corner. On one possession, he repeatedly mimed a corner 3. The finalist for the NBA's inaugural Clutch Player of the Year was a "great decoy," Heat guard Kyle Lowry said.
Lowry, the 37-year-old six-time All-Star who comes off Miami's bench, took the reins on offense in crunch time and finished with 18 points, five rebounds, six assists and five combined steals and blocks. He also made several defensive plays to keep New York at bay, first poking a rebound out of Mitchell Robinson's hands, then tying up Jalen Brunson on a drive, deflecting a pass out of bounds off of Josh Hart and then swiping down at the ball to stop RJ Barrrett one-on-one, all in about 2 ½ minutes.
"I've watched Kyle Lowry enough times with the Raptors, just watching them growing up, and he's a guy who's going to get strips and get steals," Barrett, a Toronto native, said. "Got to watch the film and see how I can be better, personally."
Brunson, who scored 25 points but missed all seven of his 3-point attempts, blamed himself for the loss. "Today I was horrific," he said. "Very uncharacteristic by me." But while Miami can't count on New York shooting a collective 7 for 34 from downtown again, it is not as if the Heat's shooters were blessed by the Basketball Gods, either. Butler's decision to stay in the game "infused a bunch of confidence to the rest of the guys," Spoelstra said, and Lowry wasn't the only championship-winning former All-Star who gave the team some juice.
With about eight minutes left in the third quarter, Kevin Love rebounded a missed 3 and immediately fired a two-handed outlet pass to Max Strus for a layup. A minute later, Love rebounded another 3 and found Butler for a dunk the same way. Less than 90 seconds after that, another Love board, another Love outlet pass, another Butler dunk. These plays were part of a 24-7 run.
"That's such an incredible skill," Spoelstra said. "There's not many guys in this association that can throw it 90 feet, much less see the play happen, and then on time, on target."
"It literally gave us an extra boost of just energy," Lowry said. "A jolt. I know you guys have all watched the highlights of him being able to do the full-court stuff. He's been doing that forever. Pinpoint passes like that."
Lowry and Love "stabilize everything," Spoelstra said. The former missed much of the season because of a knee injury, and the latter joined the team after a buyout in February, and both have made their presence felt in the playoffs. With every rally fourth-quarter run, with every win in a hostile environment, the Heat look more and more like a team that just knows how to solve playoff problems. Miami gave up 40 points in the paint before halftime, then put an emphasis on shrinking the floor and limited New York to 22 in the second half.
"We have a team that's made for situations where we can grind it out," Lowry said No matter what."
Spoelstra said that, just because the Heat went 44-38 during the regular season "doesn't mean that we weren't developing grit and tough habits." They played in 54 clutch situations (i.e. the score is within five points in the last five minutes) this season, and Bam Adebayo said it is no coincidence that "we still in our minds believe that we got a chance" in difficult moments.
While the series opener was "in the mud," Spoelstra said, he cautioned not to "assume that each game is going to look like this." Two of their regular-season matchups were "throwback Heat-Knicks, like you would expect, and then we had two shootouts, basically." Maybe both teams will start raining 3s in Game 2 on Tuesday. Maybe Butler, whose status is unclear, will be sidelined and Miami will have to scrounge for every point it can get. The Heat understand that, this time of year, it's about staying composed, making adjustments and treating each game -- each possession, even -- as its own challenge.
"The game will be whatever it will be," Spoelstra said. "And you have to just find a way to conquer it."