MIAMI — The Knicks have felt comfortably clear of the NBA’s play-in cutoff for a few weeks, but they squandered an important head-to-head opportunity Wednesday night to move that much closer towards clinching a proper playoff berth.
Julius Randle endured a quiet scoring night one game after netting a career-high 57 points on Monday against the Timberwolves, finishing with 15 on 7-for-16 shooting as the fifth-place Knicks saw their lead over the No. 7 Heat trimmed to two games with eight remaining with a 127-120 loss at Miami-Dade Arena.
RJ Barrett scored 26 points, Jalen Brunson had 25 and Quentin Grimes added 22, including six made 3-pointers, for the Knicks, who also lead the sixth-place Nets by two games entering Thursday’s visit to Orlando.
Jimmy Butler led the Heat with 35 points and nine assists, while Tyler Herro contributed 22 points and Gabe Vincent netted 19.
The Knicks (42-32) trailed by as many as 11 in the third quarter and by six entering the fourth, but early 3-pointers by Barrett and Josh Hart (10 points) pulled them within three.
Mitchell Robinson rejected Bam Adebayo at one end and flushed an alley-oop dunk at the other to put the Knicks ahead 98-97, with under 10 minutes to play.
But two long-range buckets by Herro and another by Max Strus put the Heat (40-34) up by 12 with 3:54 remaining.
Barrett’s corner trey off Randle’s ninth assist got the Knicks within five with 42 seconds to go, but Butler and Kyle Lowry sank two free throws apiece to seal it.
The Knicks wore black ribbons on their jerseys across their left shoulders to honor Hall of Fame big man Willis Reed, who died Tuesday, and the Heat held a moment of silence before the game for the former Knicks captain.
The Knicks hit four of their first five field-goal attempts to grab a quick 10-4 lead, but Butler and Vincent combined for 11 in a 16-4 Heat run to give Miami a 20-14 turnaround advantage. The Knicks responded with eight straight points, culminated by a Barrett 3-pointer to retake the lead.
They extended that spurt to 15-3 before holding a slim 32-31 lead — including a team-high nine for Brunson — through one quarter.
The Heat led by as many as nine, 60-51, in the second, with Butler finishing the half with 16. Randle was held to nine points on 4 of 10 shooting through two quarters, but Brunson had 14 and Barrett added 10 as the Knicks closed within 64-61 by intermission.
Butler’s traditional three-point play extended the Heat lead to eight with four minutes remaining in the third and 11 less than one minute later. Grimes sank three triples in the quarter but Randle got whistled for an offensive foul on a dunk attempt and scored only two points on three shot attempts.
He also was called for a technical foul for arguing with the officials as the Heat carried a 92-86 lead into the final period.