Whether we want to believe it or not, Playoff basketball is a different animal.
The things that work in the regular season suddenly become an issue in the postseason. The intricacies and detail necessary for playoff success are something completely different than the day-to-day grind of the regular season.
This is something that players quickly find out in their first runs through the playoffs. The defenses that work in the regular season can get picked apart. Teams that are beholden to one way of playing are ripped from the seams. Teams that cannot overcome even the littlest of adversity fold quickly.
Playoff defeat certainly points to the future and the hopes young teams have for their development. But it also reveals all their weaknesses. It forces teams to reckon with their flaws and figure out how to get better.
And the worst thing a team can be at the end of a playoff series is left wondering, “How exactly do we get better? Is this the best we can do?”
The New York Knicks got exposed in the playoffs after a strong regular season run. The postseason exposed every team’s flaws and leaves them asking questions.
That is not quite where the New York Knicks were after their six-game series loss to the Miami Heat. But after yo-yo-ing in and out of the playoffs the last three seasons, even with a good addition in Jalen Brunson to help the team get back to playoff condition.
This Knicks team seemed like the perfect example of a team that is good in the regular season. But got exposed in the postseason as a team that could not win at the highest levels, even after beating the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round.
The Knicks were hardly an impressive team statistically. They finished 19th, one spot behind the Magic, in defensive rating at 114.2 points allowed per 100 possessions. Their 117.0 offensive rating was fourth in the regular season.
That is the opposite of what you would expect from a Tom Thibodeau-coached team. But their positive net rating showed they played enough defense to allow their offense to thrive.
And they have a lot of offensive weapons. Both Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle put in All-Star caliber seasons, averaging 24.0 and 25.1 points per game respectively. RJ Barrett added 19.6 points per game and they had players who all filled their roles and enough athleticism to fill in and support the team.
When it came to the playoffs though, their offense got put to the test. A team that shot 54.1 percent effective field goal percentage (20th in the league) could not sustain that offense when teams zeroed in on them.
This is where a team like the Knicks was a tough out in the regular season but proved to be a team that could not succeed in the playoffs.
Granted, New York defeated Cleveland in the first round. But the team did so thanks to a strong defensive effort — 101.9 defensive rating. New York scored just 107.3 points per 100 possessions and that became the problem for New York in the second round of the playoffs.
The New York Knicks’ series with the Miami Heat was the lone series where the Heat struggled to shoot from deep. But that ultimately did not matter because New York could not break Miami’s defense. The Knicks scored only 108.1 points per 100 possessions in the series against a 112.6 defensive rating.
How does a team that was so strong offensively in the regular season flame out in the playoffs? That is the question the Knicks are asking. And it is a common question a lot of teams ask themselves after playoff losses — the Boston Celtics decided to trade Marcus Smart and add Kristaps Porzingis in the name of offensive diversity this offseason.
New York certainly can believe that individual play was at the heart of this.
Brunson had a killer postseason, averaging 27.8 points per game. Barrett too kept his production going, averaging 19.3 points per game.
But Randle completely disappeared, averaging just 16.6 points per game in 10 postseason games, including 18.8 points per game in the Miami series but on just 41.1 percent shooting. The Knicks just could not shoot effectively enough to take advantage of what their defense provided.
That may have been the mistake. In the regular season, New York leaned on its offense over its defense. That defense was only carrying the team so far.
The Knicks just were not built for the postseason.
New York ran isolations on 9.2 percent of their possessions, the fourth-most in the league last year, at 0.99 points per possession. In the Playoffs, that frequency remained at 9.7 percent of their possessions at 0.88 points per possession.
As good as Brunson was, this was not a big pick-and-roll team. New York’s offense was just plainly one dimensional and the good playoff teams targeted that and exploited it.
The Knicks are running back much of the same roster — the team traded Obi Toppin and added Donte DiVincenzo for some defensive toughness. This is a group that has some young players like Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes that can continue getting better.
But New York’s fortunes turn on Randle playing like an All-Star and stepping up in the playoffs. That is something he has not done — 17.1 points per game is nice, but doing so on 34.4 percent shooting as a big raises a lot of questions.
Playoff basketball is just different. And the Knicks have struggled in two postseason trips to carry themselves over from good regular seasons. Or at least to elevate their game. They took advantage of an inexperienced Cavaliers team and beat them in a grind-it-out affair. The Heat knew how to exploit these fissures.
This is a valuable thing for the Knicks to know, of course. It has left them wondering if Randle is the answer and perhaps teeing him up for a trade sometime down the road to help this team develop further. They are biding their time for it with Brunson and Barrett needing to backup their strong seasons.
This is the kind of thing the Magic are going to try to learn this season. They want to be where the Knicks are, wondering if they have enough and beginning to plan what their future might be all while building consistency and repeat playoff appearances.
You have to go through playoff heartaches to know where you stand. You just hope that it is not too late in the process and that players can learn and grow from the process.
The regular season is a test for sure. And the Magic are trying to pass that test. But it is different from the playoffs. And what works in the regular season does not always translate in a series. And that is an important lesson for the Magic to learn.