A bloodbath in Madison Square Garden awaits the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers as both teams eagerly look to take a 2-1 lead in a competitive, back-and-forth series.
Keeping a lid on the rim
The Cavaliers have made bone-crushing defense their identity. There’s no sense in changing that now, as their path to success remains on the defensive end.
Cleveland has ensured that both teams play at a snail’s pace in the opening games. New York scored 15 points below their season average in their Game 1 victory. Then, in Game 2, the Knicks put up a 90 points on 36% shooting from the field, their second-lowest scoring output and fourth-worst shooting percentage of the season.
The bulk of Cleveland’s attention has been centered on Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle. Aggressive trapping and swift help-side rotations have limited New York’s primary scoring options.
The defensive efforts of Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen have been especially damaging to the Knicks as Randle is shooting just 15-40 from the floor with more than double the number of turnovers (11) as assists (5). Randle has had to deal with constant swarms on the backside and Mobley’s point-of-attack defense has kept the All-Star forward at bay on the perimeter.
Brunson carried the Knicks through the finish line in Game 1, scoring 21 second-half points. But the Cavs deployed a more assertive approach to getting the ball out of his hands in Game 2, trapping him whenever possible.
The Cavs have put a bolt lock on the rim, holding New York to 38 points in the paint in Game 2. They are able to do this by overcommitting on drives and allowing the Knicks supporting cast to try their hand at beating them from behind the line. Thus far this has worked, with RJ Barrett, Quentin Grimes and Obi Toppin shooting a combined 4-20 from the three-point line.
Playing in front of a friendly crowd could be what it takes to snap New York out of its cold spell. The Cavs will need to keep a close eye on Sixth Man of the Year candidate Immanuel Quickley, who has scored just 15 points in 47 total minutes. This is a streaky threat the Cavaliers would prefer to stay cold.
And finally, the Cavaliers will need to deliver another solid performance on the glass. New York stole the opening game behind their overwhelming presence on the offensive glass, snatching 17 offensive boards, accounting for 38% of their misses.
The Cavs reduced this number to 28% in Game 2 as Darius Garland, Caris LeVert and Cedi Osman helped Cleveland’s bigs tackle the glass. A shared effort on the boards will be key to limiting New York’s second-chance points and keeping a lid on the rim moving forward.
Cleveland’s ever-changing rotation
It’s one of the biggest questions of the series, who can the Cavaliers trust to be on the floor? The core four have been superb, winning their 53 minutes together by 23 points in the first two games. But the rest of the rotation has not been as reliable.
Dean Wade and Ricky Rubio were given just one stint before being yanked from the lineup in Game 1. Wade’s indecisiveness and Rubio’s lack of offensive juice made their presence too damaging for J.B. Bickerstaff to justify keeping on the floor.
Isaac Okoro, who many considered an X-factor in this series, has played just 25 total minutes. He has been fine defensively but is shooting 1-7 from the field, shrinking the court for Cleveland and stagnating their offense. Early foul trouble for Okoro in Game 2 left Bickerstaff with no choice but to dig deeper into his bench.
This is where Cedi Osman has been inserted to create chaos. Osman drilled 2-3 three-point attempts in Game 1 and nearly helped spearhead the comeback victory. Osman was less efficient in Game 2, shooting 1-7 from deep. But — his off-ball presence and quick decisions continued to open things up for the Cavaliers offensively.
If there is one thing Osman can do, it’s shift a defense. Setting the screen here and then immediately attacking off the catch is the type of assertiveness Cleveland was lacking from the wing in Game 1.
Even Danny Green, the 34-year-old veteran who tore his ACL less than a year ago, was able to give Cleveland quality production. Green played 20 minutes in Game 2, drilling a three-pointer and contributing 4 rebounds as the Cavs hid him defensively on Julius Randle. Green’s years of NBA experience allowed him to hold his own weight despite his limited mobility.
Perhaps most notably, the three-guard lineup of Donovan Mitchell, Darius Garland and Caris LeVert has been one of their most effective units. The three have posted a +25 in just 32 minutes together, screening for each other in Game 2 and forcing New York’s backcourt into the action.
LeVert and Garland struggled in Game 1 but using the guards as screeners was a timely adjustment that helped them break free. New York’s bigs had wreaked havoc defensively during Game 1. Opting to get the Knicks’ backcourt involved instead allowed Garland to score a career-high 26 points in the first half while LeVert finished the game with 24 points off the bench.
Take a look at this play, where Allen sets the initial screen and then Mitchell staggers to get Garland an open look. This simple yet effective set was enough to help Cleveland’s offense find a rhythm.
There is a question as to whether Okoro will maintain his position in the rotation or if Osman or Green will eat his minutes. But there should be no doubt that LeVert belongs in the closing lineups alongside Mitchell and Garland. His ability to relieve pressure and create shots is too valuable.
The rest of the rotation could be plug-and-play as Lamar Stevens has yet to touch the floor for Cleveland. His skill as a rebounder could be useful in a series with so much emphasis on cleaning the glass. It’s hard to get a sense of who will earn a consistent role but more experimentation from Bickerstaff is a safe bet.