Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said during the NBA Finals last October he’d like to build a defensive culture like Pat Riley’s Miami Heat.
Thibodeau has done a good job at trying to get there, but his Knicks still can’t beat the Heat and saw their three-game winning streak snapped Monday night.
Miami swept the season series as Thibodeau’s favorite player, Jimmy Butler, led a second-half comeback with 27 points to power the disappointing Heat to a 98-88 victory at the Garden.
After making The Finals in the bubble last season, the Heat have been a major disappointment and came to the Garden on a six-game losing streak. But they looked like the bubble Heat in defending with menacing glee and knocked off the Knicks who shockingly still lead them in the standings.
Julius Randle, who missed his season’s first game in Milwaukee on Saturday, returned but didn’t have any rhythm despite a strong finish. Randle finished with 22 points but shot just 7 of 17 with five turnovers.
In the bunched-up East, the Knicks fell to 24-23, in fifth place, while the eighth-place Heat improved to 23-24
Miami’s defense forced the Knicks into missing their first eight shots during a 16-point first quarter. The Knicks climbed out of it in the second period when a 16-0 run saw them take a 34-27 lead.
The run was capped by a dynamic drive to the basket past two Miami defenders by struggling rookie Obi Toppin and consecutive 3-pointers by Derrick Rose and Alec Burks.
The Knicks led by 43-36 at halftime in a slugfest between two of the league’s best defensive outfits.
Butler got hot in the third quarter, dropped in nine straight points as the Heat tied it at 47-47 with 9:10 left. But he picked up a technical for yelling either at the referee or RJ Barrett after sinking a jumper.
Duncan Robinson, the sharpshooter out of Williams College, got hot from the 3-point line, too, as the Heat scored 39 points in the third quarter after scoring just 36 in the first half.
Butler finished with 17 points in the third period, scoring from all parts of the court. The Heat took an 11-point lead into the final period.
Early in the fourth, Miami scored on a Tyler Herro after a possession in which they snared three offensive rebounds.