For the second time in the last three games, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau has benched a key starter in crunch time.
In Game 5 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Thibodeau benched All-Star forward Julius Randle the entire fourth quarter, riding a unit that gave the Knicks life to an 11-point series-clinching victory.
And in Game 2 of his Knicks’ second-round playoff series against the Miami Heat at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, the head coach made an even bigger call.
He subbed RJ Barrett out of the game late in the fourth quarter despite the fourth-year forward enjoying his hottest-shooting game of the entire season.
Barrett hit four of his first six three-pointers on Tuesday and shot five-of-nine from downtown on the night. He finished with 24 points on 8-of-17 shooting from the field and hit more threes than any Heat player, only out-done by six threes from his own teammate, Jalen Brunson.
Thibodeau, however, still subbed Barrett out of the game at the 7:07 mark of the fourth quarter, and instead rode Quentin Grimes, the gritty, second-year two-way wing out of Houston who has earned the coach’s trust with his willingness to defend and make hustle plays.
Thibodeau also rode starter Josh Hart, who checked in for Barrett midway through the final period and finished with 12 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists on the night.
It doesn’t mean much when it results in a win, which is why Randle so easily — but reluctantly — shrugged off the coach’s decision when the Knicks defeated the Cavaliers in the first round via gentleman’s sweep.
The Knicks, however, flirted with defeat before stringing together critical late-game stops to even the series at one game apiece. They now have three days off before traveling to Miami for Game 3 on Saturday.
Thibodeau said he has his own set of defensive markers that tell him his team is better defensively than new-age advanced analytics might suggest.
Those markers, however, didn’t prevent his team from getting cooked by three relative nobodies in Game 2 on Tuesday.
Caleb Martin scored a Heat-high 22 points, Gabe Vincent added 21, and Max Strus scored 17. For clarity, Strus is the only one of those three players to average 10 or more points in a season in their career.
The Knicks also struggled to generate stops against a Heat team missing two of their three leading scorers in Game 2: Jimmy Butler sat with an ankle sprain, and Tyler Herro is out the entire series after breaking his hand in the first round against the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Knicks owned the NBA’s best defensive rating in their own first-round playoff series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, an about face after they ranked 19th in defensive rating through 82 regular-season games.
Thibs says he doesn’t subscribe to certain defensive statistics — only his own.
“The ratings systems that some people use, I don’t go by,” he said. “My markers are: defensive field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage, rebound margin, points in the paint, fastbreak points allowed – and when you look at those markers, they’re pretty strong.
“I think there was a continual improvement throughout the season, but when you rebound the ball the way we do, and you challenge shots, to me the ability to challenge shots is huge. And so there’s some teams — like I haven’t seen a defensive ratings system yet that is accurate, so, I go by my own markers.”