The Knicks walked off the court at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon with their shoulders slumped. The energy that gripped the arena at the start of the game against Miami had dissolved into a mélange of people shuffling out, Heat fans boasting and a few Knicks fans shouting insults, mostly at the game officials and the Heat fans.
Perspective is difficult to have in a moment like this.
“I was horrific,” said Knicks point guard Jalen Brunson, who scored 25 points but missed all seven of his 3-point attempts.
On Sunday, the Knicks lost to the Heat, 108-101, in Game 1 of the N.B.A.’s Eastern Conference semifinals. They lost even though the Heat star Jimmy Butler didn’t have the kind of scoring explosion he used to knock off the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.
But despite the dour mood that engulfed the Garden after the game, it would be unwise to bury the Knicks for their performance. In some ways, everything the Knicks are doing in the playoffs is a bonus. Perhaps more important, there is still time for them to survive this series.
“I don’t think anyone thought this game was going to be, or the series was going to be, won or lost in the first game,” Knicks guard Josh Hart said. He added later: “I don’t think there’s an opportunity that we let slip away. It’s going to be a tough, physical series and every game’s different.”
Neither the Heat nor the Knicks were expected to last very long in the playoffs.
The Knicks finished the regular season as the fifth seed in the East, facing a Cleveland Cavaliers team that had traded for the star the Knicks wouldn’t — Donovan Mitchell.
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The Heat faced even longer odds as the eighth seed against a Bucks team expected to compete for the championship and led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is a finalist for this year’s Most Valuable Player Award.
Instead, the Heat and the Knicks easily dispatched their first-round opponents, each needing just five games to do it. Miami benefited from an injury to Antetokounmpo and the dynamism of Butler. Butler scored 56 points in Miami’s Game 4 win against the Bucks and 42 in the series-clinching win two days later.
That meant containing Butler would be critical for the Knicks, a team driven by its defense and depth.
The Knicks had a home-court advantage and a tactical advantage in that Coach Tom Thibodeau knows Butler well. He coached Butler with the Chicago Bulls for Butler’s first four seasons in the N.B.A., and again when Butler played for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
On Sunday, Butler had 25 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals. More critically, the attention he commanded on the court made things easier for his teammates, many of whom have thrived under playoff pressure before.
The Knicks’ shooting was also particularly damaging for them. Brunson wasn’t the only one who struggled from 3. Overall, the Knicks made only 20.6 percent of their 3-pointers, including just 3 of 16 in the first half.
With 5 minutes 5 seconds remaining, Butler struggled to rise from the court after turning his ankle while tangling with Hart. He refused to leave the game. With Butler hobbled the Heat relied on guard Kyle Lowry and extended their lead to 11 points from 3.
“That certainly is inspiring that he would not come out of the game,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And to be able to finish the game just infused a bunch of confidence to the rest of the guys that we have to finish this off.”
Historically, when the Heat and Knicks have played each other in the playoffs, the battles have more closely resembled boxing matches than basketball games. Their physicality was legendary in the 1990s, with the Knicks’ Patrick Ewing and Miami’s Alonzo Mourning, both of whom were at Sunday’s game, going at each other in the paint.
Sunday’s game was higher scoring than those contests from a quarter-century ago but was similarly physical.
“I wouldn’t just assume that each game is going to look like this,” Spoelstra said. “We’ve played these guys four times during the regular season. Two of the games were in the mud like this, the throwback Heat and Knicks that you would expect. And then we had two shootouts.”
But he also said he expected the series to be a “cage fight.”
What the Knicks have done already this postseason is cause for optimism for their future.
They were not supposed to make a deep playoff run this year even with Brunson, who was a finalist for the league’s Most Improved Player Award. The Knicks are widely considered to be one superstar away from being championship contenders. If they win this series and get to the conference finals, they will have surpassed most expectations.
They have avoided the kind of ridiculous drama that characterized the decade-long desert they wandered through until creating a stable environment with Thibodeau at the helm.
The Knicks beat the Cavaliers soundly, justifying their unwillingness to gut their roster in order to trade for Mitchell.
Their depth propelled them against Cleveland. It is why they have often succeeded even when playing short-handed.
On Sunday, they were playing without Julius Randle, who is out with a sprained ankle. Thibodeau refused to use that as an excuse for why they lost the game.
“We have more than enough,” he said after the game.
The Heat were also missing a key player — guard Tyler Herro, who broke his hand during the first round and is expected to be out for several weeks.
Butler did not address reporters after the game, and Spoelstra said he didn’t know the status of Butler’s injury. But if it is serious, it could change the complexion of the series. Still, the Knicks saw what the Heat did in the first round against the Bucks and know how difficult they can be.
“They’re never going to give up,” Knicks forward RJ Barrett said. “That’s one thing I personally enjoy about this series. It’s going to be hard-fought. It’s going to be tough. You’ve got to go out there and kind of take it.”