The Cleveland Cavaliers’ first round series against the New York Knicks kicks off on Saturday at 6 p.m. Here are seven things to know about the series.
Donovan Mitchell is a proven playoff bucket
Most of the Cavaliers’ roster hasn’t been here before. Donovan Mitchell has.
For this career, in seven playoffs series, Mitchell is averaging 28.3 points and 4.7 assists per game in 37 minutes per game. The peak of his playoff resume are the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, when he averaged 36.3 points and 32.3 points respectively. He was unguardable for stretches of those playoffs.
Last year is where it didn’t go well for Mitchell. The 2021-22 Utah Jazz, heading towards towards the end the Mitchell-Rudy Gobert-Quinn Synder era, were bounced in the first round against the Dallas Mavericks. Mitchell had arguably his worst playoffs on offense and was particularly picked at defensively by Jalen Brunson. Who, of course, now plays for the Knicks. His play in the bubble was superstar stuff:
Based on how he’s played this year, with the focus and the drive to show how good he is, expect the best version of Mitchell when the playoffs kick off. Mitchell at this best can dominate a series.
Many of the Cavs’ players are going through the first time
Of the Cavs’ starters, only Mitchell and Jarrett Allen have been to the playoffs before. (The play-in tournament doesn’t count for Darius Garland, Isaac Okoro and Evan Mobley. That’s more like an appetizer for the main course.)
Even with Allen, it’s only nine playoff games played back when he was with the Nets. Go to the bench and LeVert has appeared in nine playoff games, also with the Nets. Ricky Rubio has only played in 11, although he has an extensive international career with higher stakes than a first round series.
What does this mean? It means the Cavs are going to go through this and learn from this. It means they might take some lumps as they adjust. And, ideally, what happens here propels them forward.
“It’s going to be fun,” Garland said recently, per The Athletic. “I mean, I’ve been waiting for it for four years now.”
Isaac Okoro’s health matters
The last time the Cavs played the Knicks and Okoro played, he did a standout job on Jalen Brunson.
On Jan. 24, in a 105-103 Knicks win, Brunson had 14 points and 4 assists on 5-13 shooting. Okoro did what he did best in that meeting — defend the point of attack with physicality, focus and a high motor. In that matchup, Brunson had a hard time finding space to drive and find the shots that make him deadly.
Now, Okoro is dealing with a knee issue that caused him to miss the last six games of the regular season. Assuming he does play (which seems likely at this point), is he going to start? Will Okoro play 30-plus minutes? Even if he’s healthy, he won’t match Brunson’s minutes with Brunson likely to play 40-plus.
That leaves gaps for Brunson to cut loose. And the Cavs don’t have another solid point of attack option. Their best option for Brunson might be Evan Mobley on switches when Okoro sits.
DraftKings odds: Cleveland is favored to advance
Cleveland enters the series against New York a -210 favorite with New York coming in + 185 per DraftKings.
This makes this the closest series among the East series. In the 2-7 matchup, the Celtics are -1000 favorites over the Hawks (who are +650). In the 3-6, the 76ers are -900 favorites vs. the Nets (who are +600). There is no line yet for the Bucks series in the 1-8, as their opponents has not yet been set.
Beyond the first round, the Cavs enter the playoffs at +1500 to win the East and +4500 win the title. That’s the fourth-best odds to win the East and the ninth-best odds to win the title.
Lineups with Evan Mobley at the five have been vulnerable on the glass
In lineups with Mobley at the five and Jarrett Allen on the bench, the Cavs are generally good. Per Cleaning The Glass, they are outscoring teams by 8.2 points per 100 possessions with an offensive rating of 117.4 and a defensive rating of 109.3. The lineups — largely spaced out, playing with tempo and with Mobley controlling the point — work.
But there is a weakness. Per Cleaning The Glass, the opponents have an offensive rebounding percentage of 31.8% vs. those lineups. For the year, that’s 5% higher than the average offensive rebounding rate.
The Knicks are also one of the league’s best offensive rebounding teams and enter the postseason with the second-best offensive rebounding rate. Cleveland has to find ways to improve this — or at least survive these minutes — to win this series.
Julius Randle’s health is up in the air
Randle, the Knicks’ star forward, suffered an ankle injury late in the season that has his status for the series in doubt.
For Saturday’s Game 1, Randle is listed as questionable and has not yet been cleared for contact. So maybe he doesn’t play in Game 1, but is back for Game 2 in Cleveland or Games 3 and 4 in New York.
But what will Randle look like? Will he be at all compromised by the ankle even when he returns? Or can be the All-NBA player he was during the regular season, including a game against the Cavs were he hit eight three-pointers in a Knicks win? And how do the Knicks adjust without him? This is perhaps the biggest tactical question about this series.
Cavs in seven. It might be over in five or six. But the Knicks are solid and the Cavs are going to learn as they go.
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