NEW YORK — It was fitting of Tom Thibodeau, albeit probably unintentionally, to bring up the ’90s Knicks just before a big Miami Heat game.
In earlier years, David Fizdale, a practitioner of increasing poetry, frequently brought up the old rivalry to touch on the Knicks fans’ sweet spot — nostalgia. But no matter how much Fizdale talked, the former Knicks coach failed to give relevance to his games against the Heat.
Now they mean something again.
When the Knicks play in Miami on Friday night, they have a chance to increase the gap from their biggest threat to the crucial fifth seed.
After all, The Heat are the best team below the Knicks overall. They have two real stars (Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo), a Hall of Fame coach (Erik Spoelstra) and a recent appearance at the NBA Finals (2020).
“I’m still waiting for Miami to get it together,” said a longtime NBA scout. “I know they have been dealing with injuries and time is running out. But I still think it will happen.”
An assistant coach agreed injuries were a factor but added: “The Heat is slow. Not athletic.”
The Heat are seventh in the East and 3 1/2 games behind the No. 5 Knicks, who are going high on a seven-game winning streak. No one expects the free falling nets to remain in their current spot at No. 6, setting up a potential New York-Miami race in the last month plus.
Not only is a guaranteed playoff spot at stake, but also the likelihood of dodging the East’s triumvirate of Milwaukee, Boston and Philadelphia in the first round. The Cavaliers, fourth in the East, present the more attractive matchup.
Just don’t tell that to Cleveland star Donovan Mitchell, who set a high bar after Wednesday’s loss to the Celtics.
“I think we’re capable of being a championship team,” Mitchell said. “I think the most important thing for us, that’s no secret of course, is that we lack the experience. If people talk about us not being in the top three, or whatever that is, that’s fine.
“I think the biggest thing for us is that we believe that not only can we make the playoffs, but we can run a deep run.”
Much of the Heat-Knicks race against Cleveland will be decided the right way. They play each other three times in four weeks, with most head-to-head matches remaining on both plans.
Thibodeau, who smiles a lot more these days, was a Knicks assistant for all the big moments of the rivalry: when Patrick Ewing was suspended for walking on the court; when Jeff Van Gundy clutched Alonzo Mourning’s leg; when Allan Houston hit the game winner.
Now the head coach sees similarities in the work ethic between his old and new Knicks – Ewing and Jalen Brunson in particular.
“There’s a lot of Rah Rah, there’s a lot of stuff that’s always being said about what you’re doing. And I think the people who actually do it never say it,” Thibodeau said. “You see it. And I knew from day one, especially in Jalen’s case, as soon as he got into the gym, I said exactly that [like the 90s teams with Larry Johnson, Latrell Sprewell, Allan Houston]. Patrick Ewing set the tone for all of this. When you walked in – it could be the middle of summer – he was in there, he was your hardest worker. When your best players set the tone for the team, that’s something special.”
As Thibodeau noted, styles and circumstances have changed since the ’90s. The Heat and Knicks played a game 20 years ago with a total of 137. The Knicks beat that alone on Wednesday.
So you’ll score a lot more points and elbow fly less, but at least the matchup matters again for the Knicks.
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