julius randle, rj barrett
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

It doesn’t matter how good or bad both teams have been over the last two decades. The Knicks (27-25) and Heat (29-23) don’t like each other.

Oddly enough, the storied rivals meet for the first time this season on Thursday night, with the Knicks playing host at Madison Square Garden. Then, both teams will play each other three times in March. This is particularly important because as things currently stand, the standings could get interesting.

The Heat currently rank sixth in the Eastern Conference and more than capable of getting hot and moving upward. The Knicks, meanwhile, are in the play-in tourney and trail Miami by two games.

After how badly Tuesday’s tilt with the Lakers ended, the Knicks really need this game.

Time: Thursday, Feb. 2, 7:30 p.m. ET


Injuries: Mitchell Robinson (thumb, out), Duncan Robinson (finger, out), Orlando Robinson (thumb, out), Omar Yurtseven (ankle, out), Nikola Jovic (back, doubtful), Victor Oladipo (ankle, doubtful), Gabe Vincent (ankle, questionable)

Betting line: Knicks +2, Over/Under 215.5 via DraftKings

Key Storyline: The rivalry returnsThe Knicks-Heat rivalry isn’t dried out and freezer-burned like the former Bulls beef. Every New York fan fondly recalls Allan Houston’s floater upsetting No. 1 Miami in the first round of the 1999 playoffs. Who can forget the year before, when Jeff Van Gundy grabbed Alonzo Mourning by the leg to break up a fight with Larry Johnson? LeBron James’ “Decision” still hurts some to this day.

Things are different now, even with the Heat just a few years removed from the NBA Finals. Miami are the worst-scoring team in the league, but rank second in defense. Fans should expect a good old-fashioned low-scoring clash, but not without the Knicks making a statement.

Key Matchup. Kyle Lowry vs. Jalen Brunson. Basketball is a scoring point guard’s game now and Brunson has been on an absolute tear. He’s averaging 22.8 points and 6.2 assists on the season, but posted 28.7 points in January. Brunson also shot nearly 45 percent from three last month compared to 39.4% for the season.

The 36-year-old Lowry, by contrast, is a big reason Miami’s offense is struggling. He’s posting his first negative offensive box plus/minus (OBPM) since 2009, meaning the Heat are worse off when he’s on the court. That’s not a good sign for any starting point guard, so Lowry will have to rely on what defense he has left in the tank to slow down Brunson and the Knicks.

X-Factor: RJ Barrett. Win or lose, the former Duke Blue Devil simply needs to show up big against Miami after being benched for most of the fourth quarter and all of overtime in Tuesday’s loss. Naturally, he wasn’t happy about it. Streaky as he can be, benching him is never the right move, but I digress.

Against Miami, Barrett needs to reach deep down to what he usually avoids: becoming the Maple Mamba. This is when the young wing takes over the game and just can’t be stopped, period. End of discussion. He retired the nickname after Kobe Bryant’s death in 2020 but when Barrett is the Maple Mamba? He can change a game.

The Knicks need this version of Barrett to show up Thursday.

Heat predicted starters: Kyle Lowry (PG), Tyler Herro (SG), Caleb Martin (F), Jimmy Butler (F), Bam Adebayo (C)

Knicks predicted starters: Jalen Brunson (PG), Quentin Grimes (SG), RJ Barrett (SF), Julius Randle (PF), Jericho Sims (C)

Prediction: The Knicks have to be angry after losing to the Lakers Tuesday and will come out fighting against the Heat. The three-headed monster of Brunson, Barrett, and Julius Randle will be in full swing, with Barrett leading the late charge. Miami, despite elite defense, will struggle to keep up with the Knicks’ scoring. Knicks 107, Heat 98.

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.