There aren’t many things that could make the first round of the NBA Playoffs more frustrating for the Cleveland Cavaliers. But, seeing the eight-seeded Miami Heat decimate the New York Knicks should have everyone kicking themselves... again.
After losing their first play-in Game, then falling behind by double-digits in their second, the Heat have miraculously bounced back from an underwhelming regular season to knock off the title favorites and the Knicks en route to an Eastern Conference Finals berth. They win beat the Boston Celtics and are in the NBA Finals for the second time in four years.
The Cavs are on the opposite end of the spectrum. They won 50+ games for the first time since LeBron James was on the roster and had every reason to believe they would be competing deep into the playoffs.
Instead, Cleveland was promptly eliminated by the Knicks in five games — only for the Heat to show them everything they did wrong. Miami eliminated New York in six games and did not do anything the Cavaliers were not capable of doing themselves.
The keys to the series have remained the same. Protect the ball and clean the glass. Where the Cavaliers were decimated in these departments, Miami kept things under control — and at times, dominated themselves.
Miami committed just 10.3 turnovers per game, the fewest of any team in the second round. Whereas Cleveland averaged 15.8 turnovers per game, leading all teams in the first round. This was a major factor as the Cavaliers allowed an average of 22.2 points off turnovers while the Heat granted just 8.8 points per game.
Many of Cleveland’s errors were self-inflicted. Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland, in particular, struggled to make the correct reads in pick-and-roll situations. Getting rid of the ball faster (and playing with better space) would have erased a majority of their turnovers.
The Heat also staved New York from pounding the glass. Miami allowed just 11.2 second-chance points per game while the Cavaliers forfeited 18.2 points per game. Scrapping for extra possessions has been New York’s antidote to inefficient scoring all season and it was their key to stomping Cleveland in round one.
It takes a team effort to rebound the ball against the Knicks. And that’s because, well, the Knicks rebound as a team. This is something that put the Cavaliers at a massive disadvantage considering Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen were the only capable rebounders on the floor for most of the series.
Watch Miami’s reaction to this shot going up. Every player snaps to either crash the glass or put a body on someone. Duncan Robinson turns all the way around to find Josh Hart and nudge him away from the rebound.
Now watch a similar shot in Game 1 of the first round. A sense of urgency is lacking from everyone on the floor for Cleveland. Caris LeVert has no idea where Hart is, and that allows him to squeeze in for an offensive rebound.
This same story was on repeat as the Knicks eliminated the Cavaliers. The Knicks scored 40.7% of their points in round one through second-chance opportunities and points off turnovers. Miami has reduced this to 19.9%, flipping the script by remaining engaged for 48 minutes.
To add insult to injury, Kevin Love has served a harsh reality check of what could have been. Love is grabbing 10.1 rebounds per 36 minutes, the 7th most of any player in the second round (minimum 60 minutes played).
Love shot just 24% from deep in round two but is still a respected shooter even when missing. Look how far out of the paint Mitchell Robinson comes to contest Love’s shot. This type of spacing is something the Cavaliers were sorely missing.
Most notably, Love has provided a stabilizing presence. He’s a fantastic screener who draws attention away from the Heat’s stars. And his quick outlet passes have created numerous easy buckets throughout the postseason.
In a series where the Cavaliers’ young stars appeared dazed and confused, a veteran who has been there before could have helped. Koby Altman and J.B. Bickerstaff might wish they could have a redo on how things played out with Love this season.
Nevertheless, it is more apparent than ever that Cleveland dropped the ball in round one. They hardly put up a fight against a team that had glaring weaknesses. The Heat have seized the opportunity and prep for a trip to the Conference Finals while the Cavaliers should be even more frustrated than they were a few weeks ago.