Can the New York Knicks provide a knockout punch to Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers?

new york knicks

The New York Knicks striking first in their first-round NBA playoff series has put all the pressure on the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Knicks went into this series as the slight underdog.

But Jalen Brunson’s 27 points and Julius Randle’s 19-point, 10-rebound efforts helped the Knicks overcome All-Star Donovan Mitchell’s 38 points to win, 101-9 — their first road playoff game since 2013. That also happened to be the last time they got out of the first round.

Here are some scatter shots on where the Knicks are in their series against the Cavs:

How Josh Hart acquisition is paying dividends

Remember back in February, after the NBA trade deadline, when it was said in this space that Josh Hart was the second-best pickup after Kevin Durant? Hart showed why and more in Saturday night’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, dropping 17 points, 10 rebounds, and a clutch 3-pointer to extend the New York Knicks’ lead and win the game.

Hart’s late-season addition was a key X-factor that we identified before Game 1. Even more impressive, in the fourth quarter, he did most of that on a sprained ankle, which he suffered landing awkwardly after going for a rebound.

Hart’s status for Game 2 is in jeopardy, with Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau saying Hart was limited during Monday’s practice due to a sprained left ankle, according to a report by The Athletic’s Fred Katz. If he can’t go, reserve bulldog defensive guard Miles “Deuce” McBride is likely to take some of his minutes. At 6-foot-1, Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell are both a perfect foil for McBride, matching him in height and size, and would struggle against his point-of-attack defense.

Hart’s injury is not seen as a long-term issue, and he could be back for either Game 2 or Game 3.

New York Knicks bench vs. Cleveland Cavaliers bench

So what were the main reasons why the Knicks were able to draw first blood? First, the differences in bench production were stark. Even with Sixth Man of the Year finalist Immanuel Quickley limited to three points on 0-for-5 shooting, the Knicks bench outscored the Cavs bench 37-14, thanks to Hart’s play.

The Knicks have the advantage over the Cavs on nearly every matchup — point guard, small forward, power forward, center, bench, and coaching. The Cavs’ only advantage is at shooting guard, where Mitchell shines.

The Knicks should consider themselves lucky long-time Knicks killer Kevin Love is now playing in Miami. Love’s absence has left a void in postseason experience and production. No names on Cleveland’s bench — Lamar Stevens, Dean Wade, Caris LeVert, or Cedi Osman — strike fear in anyone’s heart. Just Ask Osman, who Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff was tasked with guarding Brunson in the second half. Osman’s length gave Brunson fits for about two minutes until he adjusted and cooked him for a 21-point second half.

The return of Julius Randle

There was a thought Obi Toppin would have to fill in for Julius Randle in Game 1, as Randle was nursing an ankle sprain. But Randle not only played but he dominated, posting 19 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists. His offensive rebound in the last seconds of the game, racing from the three-point line to under the basket at lighting speed, was the most important stat of the night. Randle is top 10 in rebounds during clutch time, showing he embodies clutch outside of just scoring.

Revisiting the Donovan Mitchell summer trade war

donovan mitchell

After a summer of intense negotiations between the Utah Jazz and the Knicks, Donovan Mitchell was traded, to everyone’s surprise, to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Everyone suspected Mitchell would land in New York, including Mitchell. The Knicks signed Brunson to a four-year, $104 million contract, derided at the time as an overpay, but now looks like one of the best value contracts in the NBA. Both teams got their man, but the narrative around the Knicks missing out on Mitchell continues. This series could be a referendum on that conversation ending permanently, especially if the Knicks beat the team that won the Mitchell sweepstakes.

It’s important to note the massive first-round draft pick haul the Knicks would have sent out to make the deal work — Mitchell Robinson, R.J. Barrett, and Toppin. That would have been an enormous blow to the Knicks’ depth.

And it’s unlikely Quickley would have taken the leap he did with Mitchell utilizing the majority of minutes and usage rate at shooting guard. In the end, the Knicks are clearly better off as is. There is even an argument that Brunson is a better player and closer than Mitchell.

The Cleveland Cavaliers’ adjustment period

By dropping the first game to the Knicks, the Cavs lost the home-court advantage. They also made Game 2 a must-win. If they have to travel to Madison Square Garden for Game Three down 0-2, this series might end in five, or worse, a sweep. It begs the question, “What adjustments can the Cavs make?” There is no secret weapon hiding on the bench. Their frontcourt comprises two long, defensive gurus with limited offensive ability.

Besides Mitchell and Darius Garland, no other player on the roster averaged more than 17 points. Only Evan Mobely (16.2), Jarrett Allen (14.3), and LeVert (12.1) averaged double digits this season. At 28.3 and 21.6 points per game, respectively, Mitchell and Garland have carried the Cavs throughout the regular season. Game 1 showed how much the Cavs rely on the two to kickstart their offense.

But the Cavs were built as a two-man team surrounded by excellent defensive players with limited offensive capabilities. The Knicks are too deep for the Cavs to maintain their constant onslaught of fresh legs.

Lee Escobedo covers the NBA for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @_leeescobedo

Mentioned in this article:

More About: