MIAMI — If it looked familiar, it was. The Knicks lost three games that looked almost exactly like this one last spring. They’d play the Heat even for a while. The Heat would pull ahead. The Knicks would try to counterpunch. The Heat would expand the lead. The Knicks would make one last rush on them.

The Heat would resist. And the Heat would win.

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

The Knicks looked like they’d be blown out. They wound up tying the game, 92-all, with just under four minutes left. But they were gassed. They’d used up all their power pills coming back. Didn’t have enough to finish the job.

Same script, different day.

Rinse. Repeat.

“We fought and played well in the second half,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said when it was over, before going on his nightly lament about the refs swallowing their whistles so often when Jalen Brunson is involved. “And we fell short in the end.”

Short in the end.



Is it a little extra aggravating losing to a team that actually has the gall to wear jerseys that have “HEAT CULTURE” stitched on the front? Sure it is. Is it even more infuriating to dribble over the enormous “HEAT CULTURE” logo that’s painted at midcourt at Kaseya a hundred times a game? Of course it is.

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. AP

But until the Knicks — or, really, anyone else — knock the Heat off their sanctimonious pedestal, they’ve got the right to crow about their culture, to revel in their self-righteousness. Because until proven otherwise, the Heat are a distasteful and dyspeptic opponent this time of year. The Knicks found that out a year ago — as did the Bucks, as did the Celtics.

And the Heat have spent much of this year doing what the Heat normally do. They had some injuries. They lost some puzzling games. They looked good and buried in play-in territory just a week ago, now look like they’ve awakened as soon as they can sniff the playoffs. Maybe this is the year all that culture won’t be enough.

But someone’s got to prove it first.

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

And they are also peaking at the right time, which is what is probably most infuriating if you are a Knicks fan. It is easy to identify when the Knicks peaked this season. That was Jan. 27, a Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, the last time the Knicks and the Heat played, and the Knicks throttled them, 125-109, two days after crushing the Nuggets by 30.

Tom Thibodeau argues a call with referee Courtney Kirkland during the Knicks' loss.
Tom Thibodeau argues a call with referee Courtney Kirkland during the Knicks’ loss. AP

But that was also the night Julius Randle landed wrong on his shoulder. It was the last night before OG Anunoby surrendered to his elbow pain. It was the last night when the Knicks felt whole, even if they were still missing Mitchell Robinson. The Knicks were 29-17 that night, and cruising. They are 15-14 since, and it seems like half a miracle that they’ve won that many.

It would be nice if the Knicks could ease their way through the rest of their schedule, especially because the top nine look each night like they’ve just stumbled through the tape at a marathon. But that’s not possible.

“Some teams have the luxury of having built up a big cushion,” Thibodeau said. “Those teams, you can rest guys. For a lot of teams you can’t. Particularly teams shorthanded all year. You’ve got to find a way to win games.”

Especially now, with the third seed looking like more of a pipe dream, with the Knicks waking up Wednesday morning just two games out of the No. 7 slot — which would be a double-whammy, because not only would you have to earn your way into the main draw in the play-in, 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, something akin to the first must-have win of the year. It won’t be easy. The Knicks will still be short, and the Kings need the game for their prospects out West every bit as much as the Knicks need it in the East.

But at some point you have to stop the bleeding. The losing streak is three now. All three games the Knicks either led or were tied with less than four minutes left. No one had ever doubted that they’re salty competitors. But things are drifting sideways right now.

It’s good to get out of Miami and away from all that culture for a while. Better to stack a few wins, and hope that Jan. 27 was a false peak. However fanciful that might seem right now.

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