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Balanced Heat too much for Knicks, take series 4-2 to return to Eastern Conference Finals

MIAMI — Heat coach Erik Spoelstra walked into the postgame interview room, a cup of a celebratory beverage in his hand, took a seat and began explaining how difficult the journey has been for Heat.

The regular season was a struggle. They needed to survive the play-in. They were three minutes away from going home before the playoffs even started, needing a rally just to earn the right to play top-seeded Milwaukee.

All forgotten. They’re in the NBA’s final four - getting there as a No. 8 seed.

Jimmy Butler scored 24 points, Bam Adebayo added 23 and the Heat are headed back to the Eastern Conference finals after topping the New York Knicks 96-92 in Game 6.

“It is really frickin’ hard to get to the Eastern Conference finals,” Spoelstra said.

Maybe for some franchises. Not for Miami. The Heat are headed there for the 10th time overall, the seventh time in the last 13 years and the third time in the past four seasons. They’ll play Game 1 at either Boston or Philadelphia on Wednesday; those teams will decide their East semifinal series Sunday.

“It means we’re one step closer to our goal,” Butler said.

Max Strus scored 14 points and Kyle Lowry had 11 points and nine assists for the Heat. They’re the second No. 8 seed in NBA history to make the conference finals - joining the Knicks, who pulled it off in 1999.

Jalen Brunson was spectacular for New York, scoring 41 points on 14-for-22 shooting. But his teammates combined for only 51 points - Julius Randle had 15 and RJ Barrett 11 on 1-for-10 shooting. Josh Hart also had 11 points for the Knicks.

“Congratulations to the Heat, to the organization, to the coaching staff, Spo and Pat Riley and all their players,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “They played tough in this series and hats off to them. But I’m proud of our guys. There’s always disappointment in the end of the season and in the end, there’ll be one team standing. ... Proud of the way this team worked all year.”

It was dicey at the end, but Miami survived. Gabe Vincent was called for a flagrant-1 against Brunson with just under a minute left, starting a run where the Knicks scored four points in 4.6 seconds.

Brunson made the free throws, Hart added a layup and a 92-86 lead was down to 92-90.

The Knicks got a stop at the other end, but never got a shot off on the next possession. Lowry knocked the ball away for a steal, Butler made two free throws with 14.4 seconds left and the countdown back to the conference finals was on.

“It was a battle,” Lowry said. “A Tom Thibodeau-coached team, they’re always going to play hard. ... This was a grind and we found a way.”

The Heat had to dodge one dicey situation after another. The Knicks tied it once after halftime, about four minutes in, but missed 10 other field-goal attempts in the second half - along with two free throws - that would have pulled them into a tie or given them the lead.

“Just got to give them a lot of credit. They didn’t play like an 8 seed - at all,” Brunson said. “They were unbelievable. The utmost respect for them and that organization. I liked the way we fought.”

Brunson had 22 points in the first half, tying his third-most before intermission in any game this season – and his most ever by halftime of a playoff game. He had 15 in the first quarter when the Knicks came out flying to grab early control.

New York led 14 in the opening quarter, and Miami never led by more than two in the first 24 minutes. But it was Miami with the lead at the half, going up 51-50 by the break in large part because it finally kept New York off the line.

The Knicks made 11 free throws in the first quarter - the most by any Heat opponent this season and tying the fourth-most against Miami in an opening period over the last decade. But they didn’t even get to the line in the final 15:16 of the half.

The score to that point: Knicks 29, Heat 17. The score over the rest of the half: Heat 34, Knicks 21. And the Knicks never had the lead again.

“We’ve got guys that just want it,” Lowry said.