Donovan Mitchell didn’t get much of the credit for the offensive resurgence in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Game 2 victory over the New York Knicks. That was rightfully left for Darius Garland and Caris LeVert.
However, those scoring performances shouldn’t overshadow just how good Mitchell was with the ball in his hands.
In Mitchell’s last three halves of playoff basketball he’s dished out 20 assists. This includes having a season-high 13 helpers in Game 2.
Mitchell isn’t know for having high assist games. While he’s made strides as a playmaker throughout the season, he only contributed 8 or more assists in 10 of the 68 regular season games he played. He only reached double digits twice.
Mitchell is one of the best scorers in the league. Defense is a team activity and is much more than the individual man that is assigned to a player. That said, New York doesn’t have anyone on the roster that you would call a Mitchell stopper.
To counter this, the Knicks have tried to throw as many bodies Mitchell’s way as possible. In the second half of Game 1 he showed that he was good enough to still score 20 second half points on 7-16 shooting in an attempt to lead a comeback. But, it’s easier to find teammates for easy baskets when the opportunity is there. That’s what we’ve seen him do since the first half of Game 1.
Mitchell finished with 7 assists in the second half on Saturday. All five Knick defenders never take their eye off of Mitchell when he has the ball in his hands. Here, three of them step up in the paint to stop him while Jalen Brunson stunts and recovers back to Cedi Osman. Mitchell finds Jarrett Allen for an easy dunk.
Mitchell carried that mindset over to him into Game 2. He calmly allowed the defense to react to his movement and used it to find his teammates for open opportunities. Here, Julius Randle shades over to cut off Mitchell’s drive. The defense expected Evan Mobley to dump this pass off to Allen, which left him open for an uncontested dunk.
The Cavs have tried to free Garland up at times this year with empty strong side pick-and-rolls. The Knicks haven’t cleared out with their man in those situations nullifying it’s intended purpose.
Mitchell’s on-ball explosiveness makes this a little more difficult as he can still turn the corner where Garland is often cut off. Mitchell accepts the double team before dishing it off to Allen. Four Knick defenders below the free-throw line means someone above the arc is open. Allen finds Garland for an uncontested three.
The biggest offensive change going into Game 2 was increasing the minutes of LeVert, Cedi Osman and Danny Green. This allowed the Cavs to use one of them as a screener to initiate the offensive action.
Putting more capable shooters in this action forces the defense to recover hard once the guard makes the pass out of the screen. Brunson closes out poorly to Osman. Given how well Allen finishes inside, Mitchell Robinson is hesitant to help allowing Osman to score on an off-balance and shorter Brunson.
The Knicks made guys not named Mitchell beat them in Game 2. Those players were able to do so repeatedly allowing the game to become as one sided as it did. Having additional spacing and ballhandling with LeVert, Osman and Green on the floor at all times made helping on Mitchell a much more difficult task.
Even though the strategy didn’t work in Game 2, the Knicks might not get too far away from it. Wanting to keep Brunson away from Mitchell will likely keep them from switching guard or wing screens. Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau may just want to keep daring the Cavs’ role players to beat them.
The Cavs were out executed and didn’t have their players in the proper position to succeed in Game 1. That changed in Game 2. The rest of the series will likely come down to how both sides execute.