Cleveland Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has been playing whac-a-mole this series.
Every time he tries to take away one problem, an even bigger one emerges. That happened again in the New York Knicks’ Game 4 victory.
Knicks guard Jalen Brunson has been the best player so far this series. He proved that again Sunday afternoon as he totaled 29 points on 11-22 shooting with 6 assists. Isaac Okoro has been the best defender on Brunson, but has seen his minutes cut due to the team’s offensive struggles.
Bickerstaff is still trying to find a way to cover Brunson four games into the series. The Cleveland Cavaliers opened up Sunday with Darius Garland as the primary defender on Brunson, but put an emphasis on off-ball help to counter this. That help repeatedly got the Cavs into problems.
Here, Donovan Mitchell gets switched onto Brunson and does as good of a job as he can to stay with him. Jarrett Allen shows strongside help and tries to contest Brunson’s shot. The only issue is, Mitchell Robinson is all alone for an easy board and putback.
Many times, Allen didn’t even provide any meaningful help as seen here. Allen is stuck in no man’s land guarding no one while Caris LeVert wants no part of trying to fight Robinson for a board.
This strategy led to many other downstream affects. The overhelping left Robinson completely wide open for easy passes as was the case with this alley-oop.
The most frustrating aspect about Allen overhelping is that he isn’t able to cut off what Brunson does best which is get to his midrange shot. This season, 54% of Brunson’s looks have came from the midrange. Allen’s help isn’t doing anything to deter or defend that shot.
Bickerstaff didn’t trust Okoro on the offensive end and he didn’t trust anyone he put in his place to guard Brunson which led to traps. New York struggled with this mightily in Game 2 but adjusted in Game 3 by using guard screens to free Brunson up. The Cavs decided to trap again, but a general unpreparedness allowed the Knicks to beat it with ease.
The biggest issue with how they trapped Brunson is how noncommittal they were. Garland is aggressively charging while Mitchell is just trying to contain Brunson like a middle linebacker spy against a mobile quarterback. LeVert doesn’t deny the easy pass to Josh Hart like he needs to do but instead stands between Hart and R.J. Barrett. The Cavs concede the easy pass to Hart and Barrett is easily able to blow past the off-balance LeVert forcing Allen to try a late contest and another offensive rebound.
Brunson is trapped again, three possible options emerge for the pass. Barrett is the only capable ball handler who could’ve quickly beaten the trap. Instead of denying and forcing Robinson or Julius Randle to try and beat Mobley before the rotation, Barrett is able to quickly get the pass and blow past LeVert who was stuck in no man’s land.
The Cavs were not prepared for trapping Brunson in any sense. Every time they did, they allowed the Knicks to get whatever they wanted. Here no one rotates to Barrett allowing an uncontested corner three. Allen stepping up leaves three Knicks available to get the rebound.
On top of all of this, trapping and showing help defense didn’t stop Brunson in any sense. It just allowed the Knicks role players to get numerous second chance opportunities on top of uncontested shots.
Playoff basketball often comes down to taking away what your opponent does best and making them counter. The Knicks registered the second rated offensive in the regular season despite having the 20th best effective field goal percentage because they grabbed 31.8% of their missed shots. As a result, containing them on the glass was a talking point for everyone
The Cavs haven’t just failed to neutralize the Knicks on the glass like they’d like, plays like the ones above show how they’ve easily let them get those second chances with little effort. This is why they’ve been able to grab a much higher percentage of their misses, 37.3%, leading to 17.8 second chance points a game.
Bickerstaff has been seeking solutions to every problem that has faced his team. In the end however, he’s left his team unable to solve any of them allowing New York to get whatever they want while not allowing his team to do what they did best for 82 games.
There’s no perfect solution to some of the problems New York is throwing Cleveland’s way. The indecision and refusing any concessions is what is killing this team. Putting Okoro on Brunson hinders an already struggling offense. LeVert or another of the guards on Brunson isn’t ideal either. But you’re going to have to make some kind of concession and get back to playing your brand of basketball.
The Cavs are a more skilled team than the Knicks. They’ve been better all season while having the higher end talent. But the current game plan and rotations are built around not trusting anyone to do the job they’ve done all season. That is why the Cavs strengths, their guards and bigs, are being overpowered by less skilled groups.
The Knicks are the more prepared team. They know what they need to do and are executing it. The Cavs are neither and are staring down elimination because of it.