MIAMI — A Knicks season that began with mild expectations and turned into what some fans called the team’s most exciting run in more than 20 years ended Friday night with a 96-92 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
After the Heat beat the Milwaukee Bucks — the East’s No. 1 seed and the N.B.A. title favorites — in the first round, a path to the Eastern Conference finals for the Knicks seemed plausible. The fifth-seeded Knicks had just defeated the Cavaliers, the talented fourth seed led by guard Donovan Mitchell. In contrast, the Heat arrived in the second round without guard Tyler Herro, who averaged 20.1 points per game in the regular season but broke his hand against the Bucks.
But as the Knicks’ series with Miami began, the difference between these two teams became clear: The Heat have a legitimate star player in Jimmy Butler, who can will his team to victories seemingly when he chooses. The Knicks do not.
Most N.B.A. fans have likely gotten used to Butler elevating his game in the playoffs, and this postseason he has followed suit. He gashed the Knicks with high-scoring games and stellar defensive efforts. He was averaging 24.8 points, 6.5 assists, and 7.0 rebounds per game against the Knicks going into Game 6.
A six-time All-Star, Butler often plays to that level during the regular season but has been arguably the best player in these playoffs, leading a group that features undrafted starters who many casual N.B.A. fans might have to Google search to know.
On the other hand, the Knicks’ best players, Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle, have fluctuated between looking formidable enough to lead this team to the Eastern Conference finals and looking unequipped for this stage. Brunson acknowledged his struggles in this series’ Game 1 loss, when he shot 0 for 7 on 3-pointers and said he was “horrific.”
Randle, who was the Knicks’ lone All-Star selection this season and made an all-N.B.A. team, did not look like that player in these playoffs. In the regular season, he averaged a double-double of 25.1 points and 10.0 rebounds per game but was averaging just 16.8 points and 8 rebounds in the playoffs heading into Game 6. Randle is nursing an ankle injury that caused him to miss Game 1 against the Heat, but he has had concerning playoff struggles before.
The Knicks’ last appearance in the playoffs came two seasons ago, when Randle again looked great in the regular season, making his first All-Star team and averaging a double-double with 24.1 points and 10.2 rebounds per game in the regular season. But in the first round of the playoffs against the Atlanta Hawks, he faltered, averaging 18.0 points and 11.6 rebounds, despite averaging 37.3 points in the teams’ three regular-season matchups — his most against any opponent. The Hawks eliminated the Knicks in a swift five games.
After the Knicks went down 3-1 in this Heat series, Randle questioned the team’s desire.
“Maybe they want it more,” Randle said in response to a question about the Knicks’ poor offensive rebounding and little aggression for loose balls. “I don’t know. That’s who we’ve been all year, and we’ve got to find a way to step up and make those plays if we want to keep this season alive.”
The Knicks responded in Game 5, holding off a late comeback attempt from the Heat in a game when Brunson looked like the best player on either team.
While the loss on Friday was particularly disappointing since it seemed the Knicks could have made a deeper run, they still overachieved this season, and performances like Brunson’s in Game 5 are a sign that this team has some of the right pieces moving forward.
Last season, the Knicks finished 11th in the East, with questions about the futures of Coach Tom Thibodeau and Randle. In the off-season, the Knicks, as usual, missed out on the top free agents and didn’t trade for Mitchell, who has said he thought the Jazz would deal him to the Knicks, not the Cavaliers. Instead, the Knicks signed Brunson, a former Dallas guard, in a move that cost them a 2025 second-round pick for tampering.
With Brunson, the Knicks became one of the more surprising teams in the N.B.A. this season, as Brunson and Randle formed an exciting one-two punch. Beating Mitchell’s team in the first round was something of a statement to those who have questioned the Knicks’ decision not to trade for him.
“Being here, we’re playing with house money,” Teddy Foran, 24, who grew up in Stamford, Conn., said after Game 1 against the Heat. He became a Knicks fan while watching games with his father growing up.
He added: “What we did in the off-season with keeping the young core was great. Not selling out for Donovan, as you see, if you sell out for Donovan, you’ll lose in five in the first round. So you know if we lose the second round, it’s all right.”
Many fans had gathered and partied on Seventh Avenue after wins as Brunson and Randle guided the Knicks on their deepest playoff run since 2013, when they also lost in the second round. The team last made it to the N.B.A. finals in 1999 and the conference finals in 2000. But maybe these Knicks have finally done enough to make this team attractive to the marquee star players they have desperately been chasing and missing out on each off-season.