Knicks-Heat prepare for ‘gladiator battle’ in Game 3

As the 1-1 series shifts to South Beach and Jimmy Butler’s ankle gets three days to heal, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was gearing up for a battle that the Roman Empire could appreciate.

“If you’re a basketball aficionado, you have to love this series. You have great competition. Guys going after it,” Spoelstra said. “Leaving nothing to chance. Both teams probably could use an extra day just to gear up for the gladiator battle that’s about to ensue on Saturday.”

The Knicks won the hustle game Tuesday night, specifically on the glass down the stretch. The possession that shifted the victory toward New York lasted over a minute and included four offensive rebounds, ending with a Josh Hart corner 3-pointer that knotted the score at 96 with 4:45 remaining.

The Knicks, at that point, were riding high off their workman backup center, Isaiah Hartenstein, who was owning the boards and drawing a proper Garden appreciation. The Heat went cold while losing the final seven minutes by 12 points.

“If we would’ve been in that position, I feel like we were going to get those kill shots,” Spoelstra said. “Instead, the second chance opportunities gave them more opportunities for those killshots and they capitalized.”

Butler watched the final seconds from the bench in street clothes, ominously smiling and nodding his head when Miami’s defeat became certain. It’s not a stretch to assume he was thinking about revenge.

His presence looms large over Game 3, with little doubt Miami will keep his status under wraps until close to tipoff. The three days off between games — a rarity in the regular season — adds to the likelihood of his availability since it’ll be nearly a week since Butler sprained the ankle.

“His body will let you know, me know, him know, the team know. There’s no way to predict it,” Spoelstra said. “But I’m glad we have a couple extra days.”

Thibodeau, who coached Butler for six seasons in Chicago and Minnesota, said he’d plan as if the All-Star forward is available.

“You already know the answer to that,” Thibodeau said, adding that Miami adopts a different identity when Butler is out with more 3-pointers, more ball movement and more zone defense. “When he was out, (we thought Tuesday’s Game 2) would be a different type of game, and it was.”

The Heat nearly stole a victory with that strategy, leading for the majority of Game 2 while jacking up 49 3-pointers. But the Knicks, who are also banged up, came through when it most mattered to even the series.

They’ve had three of their own players — Jalen Brunson, Julius Randle and Josh Hart — sustain ankle injuries during the playoffs. It’s a battle of attrition that now heads to Miami.

“It doesn’t even really matter [how my ankle feels], to be honest,” said Randle, who added he went through “hell” to get ready for Game 2 after sitting out Game 1. “Do whatever I gotta do to make myself available to play.”


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