In Game 1, the lopsided rebounding battle did the Cleveland Cavaliers in. The rebounding conversation hid one thing that was apparent in Game 1, that the New York Knicks’ offense was dominant with Jalen Brunson on the floor and inept without him.
In Game 1, Brunson was held out of most of the first half in Game 1 due to foul trouble. The Knicks posted a 123.2 offensive rating with Brunson on and a horrendous 82.1 in the 19 minutes without him. This is despite grabbing 45.5% of their misses with him off the court, which is more than they did with him on.
J.B. Bickerstaff’s goal in Game 2 was to take Brunson away and make the game long defensive rating closer to what it was when Brunson was on the bench. They were able to do so by providing more ball pressure on all the guards, but in particular Brunson, in an effort to make the New York bigs beat them off-the-dribble or with their playmaking.
They weren’t able to do so as Cleveland registered a 96.5 defensive rating while holding the Knicks to a 40.5 effective field goal percentage. This included New York posting a 70.8 offensive rating in the 12 minutes Brunson sat in Game 2.
The entire goal was to make someone other than Brunson make decisions with the ball in their hands and live with the results. That task was often left to Julius Randle.
Randle isn’t a good playmaker, even for his position. This has shown through this series as he’s totaled 11 turnovers vs. 5 assists in two games.
Traps often force the ball out of the ball handlers hand. A quick decision by the recipient leaves you with a mismatch if you’re able to act fast. Randle is a deliberate player who can struggle when he’s sped up.
Randle makes the right decision in the clip below. But the pass being off-target and coming out just a few seconds later than it should allows Jarret Allen to get the block.
Brunson wasn’t willing to accept the double in Game 2. He often gave it up before he could ever really get trapped.
This play is a good example of how the Cavs were able to make Randle uncomfortable. Allen rotated out of the double as quickly as he could, but Randle still had an advantage on the catch. He just couldn’t take advantage of it.
As seen in the still above, a good, quick pass to Mitchell Robinson likely leads to a quick seal and score against Donovan Mitchell. Randle could also quickly try and bully Danny Green and get into good position before Allen could effectively help. Instead, he opts for the path of least resistance which is a pass to Quentin Grimes. By the time Grimes catches, the defense has rotated out ending any advantage New York initially had.
Plays like these are emblematic of how the Cavs have been able to force turnovers on 19% of New York possessions in the first two games. For context, the Knicks turned it over on only 13.1% of their possessions in the regular season.
Defense always starts with your backline — that’s what’s made Cleveland’s so successful this season. Getting past one of Evan Mobley or Allen is incredibly hard. The other waiting at the rim for you if you do get past makes it seem nearly impossible to score inside when the Cavs have it going. This can still be true even when they double.
That’s what happens in the below play. Allen and Mobley start the clip above the free throw line. Allen traps R.J. Barrett on the screen while Mobley shades to the middle to provide help. Allen is still however able to rotate back due to Randle hesitating before driving leading to a block.
Plays like this are part of the reason Randle is shooting just 6-14 at the rim this series. This isn’t just a Randle problem though. Through two games the Cavs have held the Knicks to just 58.8% shooting at the rim. For context, the Knicks as a team converted 65.1% of their looks in the restricted area in the regular season.
It also doesn’t help the Knicks that they’ve been bad from deep in the series — shooting 29.5% three over two games. This is likely to regress as role players typically shoot better at home. That said, Cleveland has done an excellent job of limiting three-point opportunities.
New York has shot six less threes per game through two games than they did in the regular season. More importantly, the Cavs are forcing the right guys into taking threes while keeping Grimes and Immanuel Quickley from hoisting. Even when they have gotten the chance to put them up, the Cavs have defended them well aside from looks that came off of second chance offensive rebounds.
Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau will desperately try to find ways to free Brunson up. The Knicks don’t have the playmakers or shooters that you’d be comfortable relying on throughout a playoff series if Brunson is disrupted to this level. The best solution may just be having Brunson aggressively attack the hedge and try to break through on his own. Like the Cavs, this could be best done by using guard screens.
It’s also possible that they use Randle as a screener more to get him going towards the basket so that the release valve can try and find him as a play finisher. They will also seek to relieve pressure with trying even harder to get Mitchell or Darius Garland switched onto Brunson like they did at the end of Game 1.
The Knicks’ performance on Tuesday wasn’t just a matter of just not hitting shots. It was a result of players being asked to do things they either weren’t prepared to do or are incapable of doing. The Knicks could be in a world of trouble if they can’t find ways to avoid putting their players in those positions.