Jimmy Butler looked his coach in the eye and said he was staying in the game, no matter how much his ankle might have hurt.
The Miami Heat needed all season to turn into the team they expected, so no way Butler wants to miss a minute of it now.
Butler had 25 points and 11 rebounds, and the No. 8-seeded Heat kept rolling after barely reaching the postseason, beating the New York Knicks 108-101 on Sunday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“We’re just playing great basketball,” Butler said in a postgame interview on the court with ABC, while still showing a limp after a fourth-quarter ankle sprain.
“We’re together, at home, on the road, through the good and through the bad. We believe that we can do something special.”
Gabe Vincent scored 20 points for the Heat, who became the sixth No. 8 seed to beat a No. 1 when they toppled Milwaukee in the first round. They continue to look nothing like a team that was only three games above .500 when they reached April and needed to win a play-in game just to get the final postseason berth in the East.
They averaged 124 points in that series behind Butler’s 37.6 per game, but they pulled this one out with old-fashioned defense and rebounding that has always worked so well before for them at this time of year.
“It’s the playoffs, number one. You expect it to be tough,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Two, just because the regular season didn’t go the way we wanted it to go or other people wanted it to go, doesn’t mean we weren’t developing grit and tough habits and good things. It wasn’t just from the play-in.”
RJ Barrett scored 26 points and Jalen Brunson had 25 for the fifth-seeded Knicks, who are in the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2013. They started strong and led most of the first half, but the Heat eventually got the Madison Square Garden crowd quieter and quieter as the game went on.
Game 2 is Tuesday night.
The Knicks were without All-Star forward Julius Randle because of a sprained left ankle and they surely missed him when the transition points dried up and it became a half-court game.
They could’ve used his shooting on a day they went 7 for 34 behind the arc, missing a chance to break open the game early and then hindering any chances of coming back. Brunson was 0 for 7 from outside and committed five turnovers.
“I was horrific,” he said. “Very uncharacteristic by me and this one’s on me. I’ve got to be better.”
The Heat fell behind by 12 points in the second quarter, but that wasn’t going to faze a team that eliminated deficits of 15 and then 16 points in the last two games against Milwaukee. They gradually narrowed the deficit before halftime, blew by the Knicks with a 21-5 run in the third quarter and pulled away to a double-digit lead in the fourth.
They did it without needing the type of huge performances Butler delivered in the first round, when he scored 56 and 42 points in the final two games. He did plenty of other things they needed, including staying in the game after getting hurt with 5:05 to play, remaining on the court for a while and then limping to the bench during a timeout before coming back out to shoot the free throws.
“He reassured me that he wasn’t going to be a liability and he wanted to stay in there and make sure we get this win,” Spoelstra said.
Butler gave the Heat a good start in a renewal of what was once a fierce rivalry, with the teams meeting four straight years from 1997-2000. The Knicks won the last three of those but have work to do if they’re going to take this one.
Getting Randle back would be a good start. He reinjured his ankle in Game 5 against Cleveland after missing the final five games of the regular season and hadn’t done much since the Knicks returned to practice. He went through a workout before the game, but the Knicks ruled him out about 45 minutes before the start.
“Any time you’re down, especially an All-Star like him, you’re going to miss him and we did tonight,” Barrett said.
New York led 61-53 early in the third before Kevin Love converted a three-point play to trigger a 21-5 spurt by Miami. He added a 3-pointer during it, but his biggest contribution was with his outlet passing. With new Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers sitting courtside, Love fired three long passes for scores, with Butler’s basket on the last one capping the run and giving the Heat a 74-66 lead.
Heat: Kyle Lowry scored 18 points. Bam Adebayo had 16.
Knicks: Randle was originally hurt against the Heat in a victory at MSG on March 29. Earlier that month, he capped a 43-point performance with a 3-pointer with 1.7 seconds remaining in a 122-120 win at Miami. … Quentin Grimes had four points off the bench after missing the final two games against Cleveland with a bruised right shoulder. Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau opted to keep Josh Hart in the starting lineup.