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The Knicks need to win in the worst way after receiving the last dose of Heat “culture”

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MIAMI — If this sounded familiar, it is. The Knicks lost three games that looked almost exactly like this one last spring. They would play the Heat even for a while. The Heat would get ahead. The Knicks would try to counterattack. The Heat would extend the lead. The Knicks would make one last rush on them.

The Heat would resist. And the Heat would win.

It happened three times in three games here at the Kaseya Center last May in the Eastern Conference semifinals. It happened again Tuesday night, the final 109-99.

The Knicks looked like they were getting blown out. They ended up tying the game, 92-all, with just under four minutes left. But they were gassed. They had used up all their energy pills on the way back. I didn’t have enough to finish the job.

Same scenario, different day.

Rinse. Repeat.

“We fought and played well in the second half,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said at the end, before continuing his nightly lament about the referees so often swallowing their whistles when Jalen Brunson is involved. “And we ultimately failed.”

Short in the end.

Rinse.

Repeat.

Is it a little more aggravating to lose to a team that has the nerve to wear jerseys that have “HEAT CULTURE” embroidered on the front? Of course it is. Is it even more infuriating to dribble over Kaseya’s huge “HEAT CULTURE” logo painted in the middle of the court a hundred times per game? Yes of course.


Jalen Brunson argues with referee Natalie Sago during the Knicks' 109-99 loss to the Heat.
Jalen Brunson argues with referee Natalie Sago during the Knicks’ 109-99 loss to the Heat. P.A.

But until the Knicks — or, really, anyone else — knock the Heat off their sanctimonious pedestal, they have the right to brag about their culture, to revel in their own righteousness. Because until proven otherwise, the Heat are an unpleasant and dyspeptic opponent at this time of year. The Knicks figured it out a year ago – just like the Bucks, just like the Celtics.

And the Heat spent much of this year doing what the Heat normally does. They had a few injuries. They lost some confusing games. They looked good and were buried in play-in territory just a week ago, now they seem to have woken up as soon as they can sniff the playoffs. This may be the year when culture will no longer be enough.

But first someone has to prove it.

“They’re a physical team,” Josh Hart said. “You always know that when you come here.”

And they also peak at just the right time, which is probably the most infuriating thing if you’re a Knicks fan. It’s easy to identify when the Knicks hit their peak this season. It was Jan. 27, a Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, the last time the Knicks and Heat played, and the Knicks throttled them, 125-109, two days after crushing the Nuggets by 30.


Tom Thibodeau discusses a call with referee Courtney Kirkland during the Knicks' loss.
Tom Thibodeau discusses a call with referee Courtney Kirkland during the Knicks’ loss. P.A.

But it was also the night Julius Randle landed badly on his shoulder. It was the last night before OG Anunoby gave in to his elbow pain. It was the last night the Knicks felt whole, even if they were still missing Mitchell Robinson. The Knicks were 29-17 that night and they were cruising. Since then, they have been 15-14 years old, and it seems like half a miracle that they have won so much.

It would be nice if the Knicks could work their way through the rest of their schedule, especially since the front nine looks every night like they just ran into the tape during a marathon. But that is not possible.

“Some teams have the luxury of having built up a big cushion,” Thibodeau said. “These teams, you guys can rest. For many teams, this is impossible. Especially shorthanded teams all year long. You have to find a way to win matches.

Especially now, with the third seed looking more like a pipe dream, with the Knicks waking up Wednesday morning just two games out of the No. 7 spot — which would be a double whammy, because not only will you have to win your Forward In the play-in main draw, your first game would likely be against the Joel Embiid 76ers.

That’s what makes the Knicks’ next game, Thursday night against the Kings at the Garden, a sort of must-win first victory of the year. It won’t be easy. The Knicks will still come up short, and the Kings need the game for their hopes in the West as much as the Knicks need it in the East.

But at some point you have to stop the bleeding. The losing streak is now three. The Knicks led or were tied in all three games with less than four minutes remaining. No one ever doubted that they were tough competitors. But things are currently drifting.

It’s nice to leave Miami and get away from all that culture for a while. Better to pile on a few wins and hope January 27th is a false peak. As fanciful as that may seem at the moment.

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