The Cleveland Cavaliers’ return to the playoffs was not a welcome one.
Cleveland lost Game 1 of its series against the New York Knicks on Saturday by a final score of 101-97. Donovan Mitchell led the Cavs with 38 points, while Julius Randle had 19 and 10 and Jalen Brunson had 27 for the Knicks.
Donovan Mitchell showed up. For a Cavs team where no one else really played well, Donovan Mitchell showed up for the playoffs.
Mitchell, in his first Cavs playoff game, dropped 38 points and 8 assists on 14-30 shooting, including 6-16 from three. He looked in control of the game, reading the Knicks’ pick-and-roll defense and pushing for matchups he wanted. Mitchell had stretches where he dominated the game. It felt like he, for moments, was going to will the Cavs to a win.
Was this the sharpest Mitchell has been all year? No. But this was a really good performance and if anyone else played well or provided scoring punch, the Cavs might win Game 1.
Cleveland needs more from Evan Mobley, Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen. To start with Mobley, he missed eight shots in the paint and was 4-13 from the field. He has to be more efficient and more assertive in this series for the Cavs win to win. For Allen, he was not sharp — dropping passes, not getting to his spots — and got outplayed fully by New York’s Mitchell Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein. That cannot happen if the Cavs are going to win the series.
Garland, though, is the big one. He started off Saturday getting trapped and committing a turnover. He finished the game 17 points, 1 assist and 5 turnovers. Garland had not had a game with more turnovers than assists since Feb. 24 against the Hawks and it only happened six times in the regular season in his 69 games played.
When the Cavs are at their best, Garland is playing a conductor role. He makes everything around him flow and function better. And he eases Mitchell’s burden by taking pressure of him to have to do and be everything. Cleveland needs a lot more from Garland than it got on Saturday.
Cleveland was killed on the glass. This is really were the game felt lost. New York nabbed 17 offensive rebounds, the last one coming with the Cavs down two and six seconds to play. Every single one felt deflating with the last one feeling like the end to the game even if there was still time on the clock.
“You can’t give up 17 offensive rebounds,” Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said postgame.
Fact check: TRUE. The Knicks turned their offensive rebounds into 23 second chance points. This was a thing coming into the series — rebounding is one of the Cavs’ biggest weaknesses and the Knicks are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the league.
For Game 1, New York won that battle. It changed the game.
“This is going to the story of this series,” Bickerstaff said.
Rotation notes. Watching live, it felt like the Cavs were looking for lineup answers as the game went on. The result was the starters playing heavy minutes and a mismatch of role players seeing time.
For instance: Ricky Rubio and Dean Wade both played in the first half. Neither played in the second. Cedi Osman played 15 of his 18 minutes in the second half as J.B. Bickerstaff looked for bench options to provide off-ball shooting. That ended up with Osman playing over Isaac Okoro and Caris LeVert late and often drawing the Jalen Brunson assignment — which felt like an advantage for the Knicks.
Bench struggles aren’t a shock — there’s a drop-off from the Cavs’ top four to the bench. And all year, Bickerstaff has ridden the Cavs’ bench for heavy minutes. This game felt like an extension of that, a team looking for answers off the bench.
The Knicks’ bench, by the way, was rock solid. Josh Hart had 17 points — outscoring the Cavs’ bench (who had 14 points) on his own.
Up next: Game 2 is Tuesday in Cleveland. Tipoff at 7:30 p.m.