The Cleveland Cavaliers’ successful season quickly turned into a nightmare as the New York Knicks beat them into submission over the course of a week and a half. They were able to do so by being the more physical and aggressive team. This showed up most notably on the offensive glass.
How skilled or how bad of a matchup the Knicks were for the Cavs can be debated. What’s clear is that there was no reason for this series to be as lopsided as it was. Cleveland was simply unprepared. There’s a lot of blame to be shared amongst the players, coaching staff and the front office for that. This shown through in the comments immediately afterwards and during exit interviews Thursday.
“If you ask anyone in our locker room, we were a better team than the Knicks,” Ricky Rubio told reporters. “Were they more talented than us? No. They just wanted it more.”
Danny Green echoed these sentiments immediately after Game 4 as he told Chris Fedor of cleveland.com, “We had more talent. We had better pieces. Actually, it was kind of evenly matched talent wise, but we had better pieces and better stars. We had enough to get it done. Came down to playing smarter, winning the scrap game, handling the moment and being surprised by the lights.”
While this may be true, it’s odd to see a team who lost so handedly without dealing with injuries say this publicly.
“I don’t think you could adjust to the physicality,” said Isaac Okoro. “You just have to have it. You got to have toughness. It’s a mental thing. It’s not something you just physically have. Mentally you’ve just got to want it more. Apparently, New York wanted it more.”
The Cavs were simply beat at what they believed was their strength. J.B. Bickerstaff has preached toughness and grit since taking over. Their defensive first mentality has manifested itself in interesting ways with the junkyard dog chain and the celebrating defensive three second violations. To see that not only tested but broken so quickly by the Knicks is alarming. They simply weren’t ready for the moment.
“Even for me, the lights were brighter than expected,” Allen said in a moment of radical transparency.
“We know we’re ultimately judged by the playoffs,” continued Allen. “We’re ultimately judged by how we doing on the biggest stage. I didn’t play to my ultimate form.”
This was especially true for Allen. While his issues on the offensive glass could be chalked up in part to a poor gameplan. He was still a nonfactor on both sides of the court. That simply can’t be the case for this team to be their best.
“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” said Donovan Mitchell. “I work hard at this and there’s beauty in the pain. There will be time to figure it out and I know we will.”
This group still believes in themselves and the culture that Bickerstaff has constructed in Cleveland even if it didn’t transfer to the court against New York.
“I fell in love with the culture and the team [Bickerstaff] was building and it’s what made me want to come back.” said Rubio. “You can see he’s building something special.”
There will be a lot of questions about this team heading into next seasons. Those ultimately won’t be answered until the playoffs. This group showed that they haven’t earned the benefit of the doubt going forward with their previous two postseason performances.
That said, the nucleus should still be formidable in the regular season even without much improvement or growth. Figuring out how to round out the roster with pieces that fit is something Koby Altman will need to do this offseason if Cleveland wants to make noise in the playoffs next season and beyond.