In an odd turn of events, the Knicks face off against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs, the team that beat them to a Donovan Mitchell trade this offseason.
While the narratives surrounding this matchup are entertaining, the on-court questions and possibilities equally make this an enticing series.
The Cavs sport the aforementioned Mitchell, another All-Star caliber guard in Darius Garland, a rising star in Evan Mobley and the second-best net rating in the league. However, the Knicks have a couple studs themselves, along with better depth and a strong regular season record against Cleveland.
In truth, this series is anybody’s for the taking, especially with a colossal variable in Julius Randle’s health. New York’s All-Star went down with an ankle injury that’s set to be re-evaluated as the series begins, leaving his availability in question.
Let’s dive into what else will drive the outcome of this clash of the fourth and fifth seeds, and predict who comes out triumphant.
The Cavaliers boast the best defense in the league, with Mitchell re-engaged on that end and the frontcourt protected by Mobley and Jarrett Allen. It’s fair to expect their strategy to focus on minimizing the damage Randle and Jalen Brunson can inflict.
They’ll throw a multitude of looks at the Knicks to accomplish this. With Brunson, expect aggressive pick-and-roll traps and funneling him into their shot blockers, likely positioned higher to take away his in-between game.
New York will have to screen him higher and have the screener slip more often, while Brunson stays calm under duress and finds the right outlet consistently as a counter. His height makes passing out of hard doubles a bit of a challenge, and they’ll be far more aggressive than anything he’s seen in the regular season, so he’ll need to be ready.
It’s possible Cleveland also puts one of their staunch wing defenders on Brunson instead of the easier matchup in Garland. Brunson hasn’t struggled with anybody one-on-one, but in this scenario the Knicks need to run some offense through whatever wing Garland sticks to, to keep them honest.
Randle, should he be available, likely gets the 2021 Hawks treatment, where the entire defense shades to his sweet spots whenever he’s got the ball. The deterrent is the same as that postseason, attack quicker and find the weak side open man.
Nobody on Cleveland’s roster is a great Randle guard. Mobley is incredible and should make his contested jumpers tough, but will get moved around. Allen gets blown by and the wings are all too small.
In potential games without Randle, the Knicks should have a faster offense with much more ball and player movement, and they’ll need it to make up for that lost production. This could make things tougher on the Cavaliers, not being able to scheme for one core player’s playstyle and being bombarded by New York’s depth, but the flip side is the Knicks can’t find enough creation without their big man.
Without Randle, RJ Barrett, Obi Toppin, Immanuel Quickley, Quentin Grimes and all those transition and offensive rebound opportunities become crucial for the Knicks. Even at full strength, their role players need to make shots and good decisions.
As to the Knicks defensive schemes, it will also center around a 1-2 punch, that being Mitchell and Garland. Like the Cavs, they’ll want to make other folks beat them.
The main challenges are going to be dealing with their speed and pull-up three-point shooting. There’s going to be at least two games where either or both guards can’t miss 33-footers off a pick, so the Knicks either need to scrap those or switch up their defensive schemes to counteract.
New York can trap Cleveland’s high pick-and-rolls, but will need perfect backside help and recovery from its bigs. This look will likely be situational as a second half curveball in a game Garland or Mitchell are cooking.
Both can shift into 99 speed at a moment, so the Knicks will have to be physical in knocking them off momentum and making the game slower and dirtier to not allow for the scoring they’re capable of. They will aggressively collapse on the inevitable breakdowns and bank on Lamar Stevens and Isaac Okoro not making big offensive plays over a whole series.
How the Knicks match up will be interesting, as Brunson is a bit of a weak point defensively, but can hide on one of those wings if Caris LeVert isn’t on the court. Grimes is their best perimeter defender, but who guards who between him and Barrett? Expect a high dosage of Quickley, even to close out games over Barrett or Brunson, to make up for these questions.
Both teams will continue with roughly their current rotations shortened down to eight guys, with maybe some spot minutes for a ninth. For the Knicks without Randle, that puts Miles McBride on the bubble, but if Randle is playing, Toppin will only have small opportunities.
Cleveland has its starting five, plus LeVert, Ricky Rubio and a selection of uninspiring wing/forwards off the bench. Dean Wade is a notorious Knick killer who can’t be overlooked, but overall New York should take advantage of this Cavs bench.
Outside of Randle’s injury, the real swing factor will be rebounding. The Knicks can stymie the Cavs offense for stretches if they don’t give up second opportunities, while they need to take advantage of the ones they can grab to counter Cleveland’s strong defense.
The Cavaliers are middle of the pack in both rebounding categories despite their gigantic frontcourt and some athletic wings, while the Knicks have been an annoyingly scrappy bunch attacking the offensive glass with some inconsistency on the other end. This battle can go one of two ways and might define the series.
It’s possible this gets decided by the guards. Quickley and Josh Hart are ferocious at chasing long rebounds, but Mitchell and Garland can do enough if they’re engaged.
This is no easy series to predict, but with the questions surrounding Randle’s health, and the fact that Cleveland has the best player in the series, we’re going with the Cavaliers in seven games.