This may be the only tightly-contested series in the top-heavy Eastern Conference, but it should be a great one.
It feels a bit obvious and like a bad movie script, but it’s the Knicks against the one that got away in Donovan Mitchell (he was forever linked to New York in trades, but Cleveland came in with the better offer). Two defense-first coaches. Two resurgent teams on the rise in the East, looking to return to playoff glory (the Knicks’ absence from that glory is much longer than the Cavaliers). Cleveland comes to the table with four All-Star players, New York has the deepest and most balanced roster the franchise has seen in recent memory.
This series seems destined to be a long one. Here are three things to watch for (and my prediction).
1) How healthy is Julius Randle?
The Knicks can win this series, but only if they have peak Julius Randle (if not for the start of the series, then at least by Game 3 back in Madison Square Garden).
Randle rolled his ankle two weeks ago in Miami, and has been in a walking boot and rehabbing it since. Coach Tom Thibodeau said he went through non-contact parts of practice with the team earlier in the week, but his official status likely will not be announced until game time on Saturday. If he plays, the question becomes will he be limited?
Randle is one of the offensive engines of the Knicks, an All-Star this season who averaged 25.1 points and 10 rebounds a game. With the long, athletic, and defensively strong Cavaliers front line of Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, the Knicks need Randle and his shooting threat (34.3% from 3) to help create spacing and open up the lane. If the Knicks get the same Randle from the Hawks playoff series in 2021— 18 points a game on 29.8% shooting — this will be a short series.
2) Jalen Brunson vs. Donovan Mitchell
If the fourth quarter of the meeting between these teams a couple of weeks ago is any indication, we are going to see these two go mano-a-mano a lot in the clutch. In that game (a Knicks’ win), Brunson called for picks to get Mitchell switched onto him in the clutch, and Mitchell did the same to Brunson on the other end. Brunson finished with 48 points, Mitchell 42.
Or, think back to last playoffs, when Brunson made his national name leading the Mavericks — without Luka Dončić for three games — to wins against Mitchell and the Jazz. Different teams, but Brunson got the better of Mitchell in that series. Mitchell may come out with a chip on his shoulder after all of that.
This series will not swing solely on which of these two elite guards is playing the best, but it will make for must-watch theater.
3) Can the Cavaliers get steady shooting from 3 from Isaac Okoro? Caris LeVert? Cedi Osman?
The easy headline matchup in this series is the Knicks’ third-ranked offense against the Cavaliers’ top-ranked defense. However, the other end of the court will decide things.
Cleveland has a top-10 offense led by Mitchell and Darius Garland in the backcourt, but going against Tom Thibodeau’s defense they will need their fifth starter to knock down shots. Cleveland has four All-Stars from the past two years — Mitchell, Garland, Mobley and Allen — but who is the fifth Beatle is the question that has plagued them all season. In this series, that man is going to get open looks at corner 3s.
Coach JB Bickerstaff would like to go with Isaac Okoro because of his strong defense, and while he shot 37.7% on corner 3-pointers this season he can be inconsistent. Caris LeVert is much steadier on offense but would be targeted by the Knicks on defense. If Okoro can’t find his rhythm, Cedi Osman may be the call. Whoever gets that role as the fifth player on closing lineups, they could help swing the series with a couple of big shots.
PREDICTION: Cavaliers in seven. Cleveland is simply deeper with high-end talent, and as Mobley becomes more comfortable in the playoff setting he will take strides toward being a force of nature.