That could not have gone worse for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In a 99-79 loss to the New York Knicks, the Cavs dropped Game 3 and fell behind 2-1 in the series in arguably their worst performance of the season. In the loss, Darius Garland finished 4-21 from the field for 10 points, while Donovan Mitchell had a quiet 22 points on 9-19 shooting.
Cleveland’s offense was awful
The numbers tell a compelling story about how bad the Cavs’ offense was.
- The Cavs, in scoring 79 points, are the first NBA team to score less than 80 points a game all season.
- Cleveland had an offensive rating of 84, per Cleaning The Glass. Only once all year the had a game with a lower offensive rating. That was on Dec. 4 in a game that was, coincidentally agains the Knicks.
- The Cavs had an offensive rating of 69.1 in the halfcourt. Not nice.
- In transition, the Cavs had an offensive rating of 76.5. The Knicks, by comparison, had an offensive rating of 166.7 in transition.
It is not hyperbole that this game, considering the stakes, was the worst Cavs offensive performance all season. It could not have come at a worse time.
Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell have to be better.
Darius Garland’s Game 2 felt like a breakthrough for him on the playoff stage. Game 3 felt like he was punted back to square one.
In his 4-21 night, Garland missed a number of easy shot — including one in the fourth quarter he created for himself off of a steal. He had a number of good looks go in and out, maybe a sign that he was feeling the pressure and the nerves of a big game in a hostile environment. (Postgame. Cavs head J.B. Bickerstaff indicated that he thought nerves played a part in the loss.)
With Caris LeVert starting, the Knicks had Jalen Brunson guard Garland instead of RJ Barrett. It got Garland some open looks, but it wasn’t an advantage really pressed on. If anything, it felt like the Cavs were caught off guard by Brunson not being moved off ball and didn’t press Brunson enough by directly running pick-and-rolls with Garland and a big at Brunson.
With Mitchell, this is the kind of game where he needs to assert himself more. Think back to his 71-point game against the Chicago Bulls. That performance was as much out of necessity as it was Mitchell feeling himself. Garland was out that game, so Mitchell had to step in and do it all. A more assertive Mitchell — particularly once it was clear Garland was having an off night — would have helped. And they’ll need an assertive Mitchell to win Sunday’s Game 4.
Did Bickerstaff overthink things?
In Game 2, Bickerstaff acquitted himself well and made moves that seems to put the Knicks on their heels. For Game 3, it felt like he overthought decisions. To name a two:
- Was Caris LeVert starting the right move? LeVert was awesome in Game 2 and he provides ball handling and shooting that fits with the other four starters. But he had only started two games with Mitchell and Garland since November. And not starting Isaac Okoro gave Jalen Brunson an easier path into an offensive rhythm and presented the Cavs with the Brunson-Garland conundrum as outlined. Even if Okoro played five minutes as half, why mess with what worked for much of the year?
- Ricky Rubio was back in the rotation for a cameo in the first half, playing five minutes. He didn’t look right in those minutes, especially on offense. Defensively, he played big and was ok. But on offense, was wasn’t additive and he looks a step slow. He wasn’t good in Game 1, so why try to go back to him here? Rubio has big game experience, so maybe that was the thought process. But based on his recent play, it was a peculiar choice.
Game 2 felt like a template for the Cavs’ success. That success certainly influenced some of the decisions made for Game 3. Does Bickerstaff simply roll back these changes for Game 4? He has some decisions to make on top of needing to get the Cavs in the right headspace after a poor performance.
Up next: Game 4 of Cavs-Knicks is on Sunday. Tipoff is at 1 p.m. in New York.