Knicks’ lack of fight most disturbing sign in loss to Heat

MIAMI — Here’s the troublesome thing: the Knicks don’t get bullied. They don’t get knocked out. They are an imperfect team. They can be an inconsistent team. For stretches of this season they played puzzlingly poorly at home, and for stretches they seemed addicted to blowing big leads. But you don’t push them around.

The Heat pushed the Knicks around Saturday afternoon.

They bullied them, and then they buried them. The final was 105-86, but the verdict was even more stinging than that. In a game to wrest control of this best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals, the Heat played with fire and fury and ferocity. They slugged the Knicks in the jaw. They butchered them with body blows.

The Knicks? The Knicks usually fight back. They don’t always win, but they’re usually like the guy in a bar fight who doesn’t much mind absorbing a black eye and a chipped tooth as long as he gets his swings in, too. The Knicks never got their swings in. They never hit back. It was a study in soft. It was stunning. And it was devastating.

“It is what we do,” Julius Randle said, acknowledging that the capstone of the Knicks is a tenacity that maybe allows their reach to often exceed their grasp. “We’ve been able to do that all year.”

He looked at the final stat sheet and grimaced slightly.

Jimmy Butler drives through Isaiah Hartenstein and goes up for a layup during the Knicks' 105-86 Game 3 loss to the Heat.
Jimmy Butler drives through Isaiah Hartenstein and goes up for a layup during the Knicks’ 105-86 Game 3 loss to the Heat.
Corey Sipkin for the NY Post

“Tonight,” he said, “not so much.”

Not at all, actually. The Heat surged to a 19-point lead early in the second quarter; the rest of the way the closest the Knicks could get was 10. They never got closer than 12 in the entire second half — this on a night when the Heat shot a paltry 21.9 percent from 3, which should have meant the Knicks would retain a puncher’s chance even if they weren’t at their best. And it didn’t matter. They played rope-a-dope without ever turning the tables.

It was brutal to watch.

“That’s the tough thing,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “They played from a lead the whole game. When you give a team a cushion like that, it’s hard.”

Immanuel Quickley sprained his left ankle after falling over Bam Adebayo during the Knicks' loss.
Immanuel Quickley sprained his left ankle after falling over Bam Adebayo during the Knicks’ loss.
Corey Sipkin for the NY Post

But that’s what the Knicks have done, from the very first game of the year when they spotted the Grizzlies a 19-point third-quarter lead in Memphis and came back to force overtime. All year, in truth, they’ve been at their best when they’re bleeding. But there was no tourniquet to be found anywhere inside Kaseya Center on Saturday.

“We have to be better,” Jalen Brunson said.

And when he said “we,” he meant it. There really weren’t many bright spots to talk about outside of, maybe, Josh Hart (15 points, 12 rebounds). Randle had as many turnovers (4) as made field goals. RJ Barrett had a hard-to-fathom plus-minus rating of -32. Mitch Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein, the co-authors of so much good in this playoff season, were all but invisible: two points between them, eight rebounds between them.

Follow The Post’s coverage of the Knicks vs. Heat NBA playoff series

And we haven’t even gotten to Jimmy Butler, who Willis-Reeded the Heat by hitting two quick jumpers early, who made five of his first seven shots despite playing on an ankle that had to be at least arguing with him, if not screaming. Butler would finish with a game-high 28 points and was spotted spinning a ball on his finger during a stoppage in play.

Not a care in the world for Butler, or for the Heat. Not as it pertained to the Knicks. Not on this day.

“He’s a great player who made great plays,” Thibodeau said. “We have to make him work for it.”

Bam Adebayo slams home a dunk over Julius Randle during the Knicks' Game 3 loss.
Bam Adebayo slams home a dunk over Julius Randle during the Knicks’ Game 3 loss.
USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

The Knicks can still salvage their reputation as stubborn counter-punchers as well as this series. That’s available to them Monday night, when there will be another 19,927 folks inside Kaseya Center, when the Heat will look to figuratively step on the Knicks’ necks.

(Although there was a literal kerfuffle in the third quarter involving Hartenstein and Cody Zeller that didn’t exactly call to mind the haymakers Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson used to enjoy sharing with each other back in the day …)

There will be blood in nearby Biscayne Bay on Monday, Knicks’ blood, and it’ll be on them to change the narrative and steal home court back from the Heat. The good news is the Knicks almost certainly have to play better. The bad? There’s a good chance that the Heat probably will, too.

“It’s a long game, and a long series,” Brunson said. “This team needs to stay together and stay confident.”

And after taking a standing-eight count, they need to come out swinging, as is their wont, as is their reputation. At least it was until Saturday.

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𝗖𝗿𝗲𝗱𝗶𝘁𝘀, 𝗖𝗼𝗽𝘆𝗿𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁 & 𝗖𝗼𝘂𝗿𝘁𝗲𝘀𝘆:
𝗙𝗼𝗿 𝗮𝗻𝘆 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗽𝗹𝗮𝗶𝗻𝘁𝘀 𝗿𝗲𝗴𝗮𝗿𝗱𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗗𝗠𝗖𝗔,
𝗣𝗹𝗲𝗮𝘀𝗲 𝘀𝗲𝗻𝗱 𝘂𝘀 𝗮𝗻 𝗲𝗺𝗮𝗶𝗹 𝗮𝘁

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