Are the Knicks being out-coached in the playoffs?

Tom Thibodeau Knicks
New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau yells to players during the first half against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 in a first-round NBA basketball playoffs series Saturday, April 15, 2023, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Nick Cammett)

The Knicks find themselves in a tough spot. They’re down 2-1 to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Semifinals and, despite being the higher seed, have been thoroughly outplayed for the vast majority of those three games. With the Knicks in as close to a must-win spot as you can get in Game 4, they need to find an answer for what Miami has been doing to them. 

However, the big question of this series is whether the Knicks will be able to find that answer or whether Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra will continue to remain one step ahead of Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau. 

Thibodeau came under fire last year when the Knicks failed to build on their success in 2021 and then was on the hot seat early in the season when the Knicks struggled out of the gate. However, after hitting the nadir in a loss to the Dallas Mavericks at home on December 3rd, Thibodeau made a bold move, shrinking his rotation to just nine players and cutting out veterans like Evan Fournier and Derrick Rose entirely. 

As has been discussed time-and-time again, the decision completely turned around the Knicks season. They had the 6th-best record in the NBA after the rotation change, posting the third-best offensive rating in the NBA and the 6th-bets net rating. 

One of the biggest parts of that rotation change was adding Quentin Grimes into the starting lineup for his defense and shooting. The added spacing from Grimes allowed Jalen Brunson more space to create offense and cleared more lanes for RJ Barrett’s drives. 

The starting lineup of Grimes, Brunson, Barrett, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson played 526 minutes together during the regular season and had a plus/minus of +72. However, in this series against Miami, those five have shared the floor for exactly zero minutes. 

Perhaps due to Grimes’ shoulder injury but also due to the presence of Jimmy Butler, Thibodeau shifted his starting lineup to add Josh Hart in. It has not gone well and Thibodeau has been reluctant to make a change. 

Josh Hart and RJ Barrett Knicks
New York Knicks guard RJ Barrett (9) and guard Trevor Keels react in the second half of Game 2 in the NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinals playoff series against the Miami Heat, Tuesday, May 2, 2023, at Madison Square Garden in New York. The Knicks won 111-105. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

There are two main reasons that the lineup change hasn’t worked and that doesn’t even factor in what was said above that the regular starting five was great together during the regular season. 

By starting Hart next to Barrett, Thibodeau is starting two inconsistent shooters next to Brunson. Barrett shot just 31% from deep this season and Hart was shooting 30.4% before getting hot after being traded to the Knicks. While both players are capable of knocking down looks from deep, they are not threats that a defense needs to account for. As a result, Miami has been sending aggressive double-teams at Brunson and also sagging off of Barrett and Hart to clog the paint and take away Brunson’s drives. 

If the Knicks want to capitalize on that, they need to guard Spoelstra is choosing to leave open to hit shots. However, Hart is just 4-of-14 from beyond the arc in the series, while Barrett is 8-for-21, which includes his 5-for-9 performance in Game 2. In the two Knicks losses, he is 3-for-12 from deep.

While Grimes hasn’t shot better in the series, he shot 38.6% from three this year and is a career 38.4% three-point shooter. His past history of success would change the way Spoelstra chooses to defend Brunson. Grimes’ presence on the court would give Brunson more space to create offense in the paint, which is what drives the Knicks. 

Even if Thibodeau chooses to keep Hart in the starting lineup to match up against Brunson, even though Grimes is also a good defender, he can stagger his rotations to allow for Grimes to get minutes alongside Brunson while Hart or Barrett get a breather.

Quentin Grimes Knicks
Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell (45) drives against New York Knicks guard Quentin Grimes (6) during the first half of Game 2 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Tuesday, April 18, 2023, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

However, Thibodeau often seems reluctant to stagger his substitutions unless he’s forced too by injury, which means he almost runs hockey lines on the court rather than fluid lineups with one or two guys coming on and off the court. This has meant that the Knicks too often have no floor-spacing next to Brunson. 

It will get even harder to space the floor with Immanuel Quickley likely out for Game 4 with a sprained ankle, so Thibodeau will need to think about bringing Fournier or Miles McBride back into the rotation for much-needed floor spacing minutes.

In fact, McBride’s elite perimeter defense may have already led to him deserving minutes.

Spoelstra and the Heat have taken advantage of Thibodeau’s strategy to hedge on pick-and-rolls and not switch defenders. They’ve done so in multiple ways. 

Oftentimes, Spoelstra will use a big man to set a high ball screen, which forces Mitchell Robinson out of the paint. Robinson will hedge onto the shooter before hoping that the Knicks defender getting screened can get back. The Heat often send these screens at Brunson’s man, and Brunson can be a bit slow to recover, which puts Robinson in no man’s land and has opened up lots of three-point looks and also kept the Knicks’ best rebounder out of the paint.

However, Spoelstra has also sent guard-guard picks up top and since the Knicks’ defensive strategy requires that they not simply switch on the screen, there have been multiple moments of miscommunication where the Knicks defenders aren’t sure how far to hedge out or if they should drop to help on the drive, which has led to far too many open looks for Miami from deep. 

Considering Miami is shooting 39.2% from three as a team in the playoffs, the second-best mark, New York cannot win this series if they keep letting the Heat get good looks from deep. 

In this series, 20.1% of Miami’s three-point attempts have been classified as “wide open,” which means no defender within six feet. That’s the second-most of any team in this round of the playoffs, and they are shooting 36.5% on those shots. 

As a contrast, Miami has only attempted 3.5% of their threes in tight coverage, which means a defender within 2-4 feet. The Knicks have shot 13.8% of their threes in tight coverage, hitting 19.4%. So while Miami is able to get lots of open looks from deep, the Knicks have been taking far too many contested three-point shots. 

Tom Thibodeau and his team are going to need to make changes if they want to stay alive in this series. They cannot keep doing the same things and hoping that the shots just start to fall. If they don’t make adjustments ahead of Game 4, this might be where the magical ride ends. 

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