Things looked bleak. Heading into the Friday night game, the New York Knicks were missing their best player Julius Randle who was out with an injured ankle, likely sidelined until the playoffs.
The Knicks were facing their likely first-round opponent, the Cleveland Cavaliers, who were without their All-Star center Jarrett Allen and starting small forward Isaac Okoro. But the Cavs are the league’s best defensive team, so with the Knicks missing the offense’s engine, a Cavs win and a 2-2 regular season series split appeared likely. Alas, Jalen Brunson had something to say about that, dropping a career-high 48 points in a win.
The Knicks would go into a first-round matchup against the Cavaliers with the lower seed but with a 3-1 season series lead. Brunson carved up the Cavs’ seemingly-unstoppable defense, exposing many of the Cavs’ shortcomings. These shortcomings will be why the Knicks will continue their luck against Cleveland come playoffs and beat them in the first round.
Of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference, only the Cleveland Cavaliers appear to be vulnerable enough to lose in the first round. The Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, and Philadelphia 76ers have too much postseason experience and chemistry with their core players to fall in the opening round. This Cavs team has never been tested in the playoffs before, as this will be their first postseason appearance since the LeBron James era.
In looking ahead to some first-round matchups, here are four main reasons why the Knicks will beat the Cavs when they match up in the postseason:
Tom Thibodeau’s experience in postseason
If the Knicks beat the Cleveland Cavaliers as the lower seed, it will be only the second time a Tom Thibodeau-coached team has won as a lower seed. He did it only once, in 2013 when his Chicago Bulls beat the Brooklyn Nets in the 4 vs. 5 matchup. But only a game separated those two teams. This Cavs team has the No. 1 defensive rating in the NBA. The Knicks are 19th. The Cavs are second in overall net rating. The Knicks are 8th.
Home-court advantage won’t mean much in this particular series. The Knicks are just as good on the road as they are at home, with a 23-16 record away from Madison Square Garden.
Furthermore, Thibodeau has been in the playoffs in seven seasons to Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff’s zero. Thibodeau has evolved this season, experimenting with small ball, starting the youngsters, and making smart in-game adjustments to close games.
How can Cleveland Cavaliers contain Jalen Brunson?
The secret is out to defending Brunson. Load up on length and pressure him to shoot over taller defenders. No arguing that. But the Cleveland Cavaliers don’t have that kind of personnel.
Outside of Isaac Okoro, nobody else has the athleticism and defensive acumen to put a serious body on Brunson. As Friday’s game showed, Brunson is seeking Donovan Mitchell as much as Mitchell is seeking him on defense. We know how that turned out last time these two met in the playoffs. With the Dallas Mavericks/Utah Jazz first-round series last season, Brunson showed Leon Rose and company what he could do in a starting role, as he carved up Utah’s defense while Luka Dončić sat out with injury. Against Mitchell and Cavs lead guard Darius Garland, Brunson will face guys as tall as him at 6’1.
Cavaliers lack of bench depth
Stop me when you hear a name that strikes fear in you: Caris LeVert, Dean Wade, Cedi Osman, Lamar Stevens. The Cleveland Cavaliers have three All-Stars and an emerging star in their starting lineup. But the bench was depleted to acquire Mitchell this summer.
LeVert has not shown the same scoring acumen he did with the Brooklyn Nets a few years ago. The other three guys average a combined 18.3 points per game. That isn’t going to cut it against the Knicks’ fifth-ranked offense and deep bench featuring Obi Toppin, Isaiah Hartenstein, Josh Hart, and Sixth Man of the Year front-runner Immanuel Quickley. The Cavs depend way too much on their starting five, offensively and defensively.
The Knicks bench leads the Cavs bench in just about every metric, most notably rebounding, where the Knicks are 10th to the Cavs 27th. With the Cavs bench unable to beat their counterparts in any capacity, it will be tough for their reserves to maintain pace. During the rotational chess match in every playoff series, the Knicks will call checkmate when it comes to the bench.
Hole at small forward
Isaac Okoro is the Cleveland Cavaliers’ best defensive wing, with a 111.4 defensive rating. But on the offensive side, he offers little in production. He averages an efficient 49.4 FG% and a decent 36.3 3FG%, but only for measly season averages of 6.4 ppg, 2.5 rebounds per game, and 1.1 assists per game. He’s the clear weak link in the starting five while providing the team with an elite screen-setter and defender at all five positions.
Okoro will likely be tasked with guarding Brunson to start games, but with the Cavs’ backcourt only standing 6-foot-1 each, he will have to fight through screens as the primary defender on the Knicks’ hot hand. Thibodeau is too good of a defensive coach not to scheme for Okoro to beat them. You can bet he will be the one left open when the Knicks defensive doubles and rotates toward the Cavs’ three All-Stars. For them to have a shot, Okoro will have to find the offensive part of his game suddenly. But for a player only averaging 4.7 field goal attempts per game, highly unlikely.
Prediction: Knicks in six.
Lee Escobedo covers the NBA for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @_leeescobedo