The New York Knicks find themselves down 3-1 to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals and one loss away from ending their magical season. While this team has fought all year long, their youth and inexperience may finally be catching up with them.
The Oklahoma City Thunder were the youngest team to qualify for the NBA Playoffs, but that distinction comes with an asterisk since they made the play-in rounds but lost to the Timberwolves and didn’t qualify for the playoffs-proper. That leaves the Knicks as the team with the youngest rotation in this year’s NBA playoffs and by far the youngest rotation of the remaining teams.
The average age of the Knicks’ starting lineup is 24.8 years old, with Julius Randle being the oldest player at 28. If you include the four-man bench that rounds out their nine-man rotation, the average age of the Knicks’ rotation is exactly 25 years old.
More than just their relative youth, the nine players who see the court for the Knicks have little playoff experience.
Jalen Brunson has the most postseason experience of the group, having been to the playoffs twice with Luka Doncic and the Mavericks. Counting this year, Brunson has played in 34 playoff games and started 27.
After that, the drop-off is drastic. Randle has started 13 playoff games, including this season, while RJ Barrett has started 14, both of them also appearing in the Knicks’ 2020-21 postseason run. Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley also made appearances in 2020-21 off of the bench with Toppin averaging only 15.4 minutes in his 14 career postseason games and Quickley averaging 19.4 in his 13 postseason games. Beyond them, Isaiah Hartenstein played two total minutes in two games with the Rockets in 2018-19.
You only have to look to the opposite bench to see how little experience that is.
Jimmy Butler has played in 105 postseason games and started 102. Kyle Lowry has played in 116 playoff games and started 94 of them, including making seven straight playoff appearances with the Raptors. Kevin Love has played in 72 postseason games and started 69 of them, while Bam Adebayo has played in 55 and started 50.
Even role players like Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, and Duncan Robinson have played in 30 or more playoff games because Miami has been here before. A number of times.
In 2019-2020, the Heat made the NBA Finals before losing to the Lakers. In 2020-21 they made the playoffs but lost in the first round and then rebounded last year to make the Eastern Conference Finals and push Boston to a Game 7 before ultimately falling short.
This is a battle-tested team that knows how to win in May when teams know how you like to play and have the time to plan extensively to take away what you do best.
The Knicks don’t have that same knowledge and experience. For most of the regular season, they have used grit and sheer force of will to overcome their relative youth, but in the playoffs that simply is proving to not be enough.
The Heat have taken control of the series by exposing the Knicks’ weaknesses and adjusting to their strengths. They have used constant ball movement and extensive screens to take advantage of New York’s defensive scheme which over-relies on rotations and scramble close-outs.
Miami has also neutralized New York’s supposed advantage on the boards, using smaller and more athletic lineups to equal New York’s 11 offensive rebounds a game and pull in just 3.5 fewer total rebounds per game. They have also used aggressive midcourt traps to force the Knicks into 13.5 turnovers per game while the Heat are only coughing up the ball 10.8 times per game.
If you go beyond the stats, it’s been clear from watching the games that when New York needs a big play, they have been unable to deliver while Miami has responded to almost every big moment.
In a tense third quarter on Monday night where the Knicks were trying to claw back from a double-digit deficit, it was Strus who seemed to always answer for the Heat. When New York cut the Miami lead to 72-69, Strus answered with a three-pointer. The Heat went back up by eight, but when the Knicks cut the lead to 82-78, Strus answered with another three.
In the fourth quarter, with the Knicks clinging to their playoff lives, Miami had seven offensive rebounds, while New York had just one, never seeming to move with the same urgency that Miami did.
The Heat have found ways to outcoach, outhustle, and flat-out outplay the Knicks at different moments throughout the series.
While New York has continued to battle and has seen players like Barrett, Hartenstein and Quentin Grimes step up at various times throughout the playoffs, their grit and team chemistry may not be enough to overcome the sheer experience they’re up against.
But if this is the end of the road for the 2022-23 Knicks season, they are at least gaining valuable big-game experience of their own in the process.
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