It’s that time of year again for NBA fans. After a long season, the playoff picture is coming to fruition with the Play-In Tournament filling in the last few spots. With the Los Angeles Lakers getting the dramatic play-in overtime win over the Timberwolves, we should expect nothing short of a summer classic. One series that many fans are looking forward to will be the No. 5 New York Knicks taking on the No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers. Cleveland is the betting favorite for this series, despite the Knicks owning a 3-1 season record against them. However, there are a few ways that New York can pull off the upset.
The NBA scriptwriters need a raise for making this series happen. There is no better storyline right now in sports than this series with the Knicks taking on Donovan Mitchell, a player last season that many Knicks fans believed would be repping the white and orange. However, New York refused to meet the Jazz’s high demand and signed star guard Jalen Brunson instead, much to the chagrin of Knicks fans at the time. Both teams have something to prove; The Knicks establishing themselves as a premier team and the Cavs returning to basketball glory and both sides looking for revenge. Mitchell wants to prove to New York they were wrong to let him go, while Quickley and Brunson have a prime opportunity to establish themselves as household names.
If you were paying attention to the playoffs last year, when Brunson was with the Mavericks, you would have seen these guards going toe-to-toe in the first round. Brunson got the better of Mitchell, proving he’s the real deal. The Mavs edged out Utah in six games, despite missing their best player, Luka Doncic. In each of the games Dallas won, Brunson averaged 30 points and 54% from the field, undoubtedly saving the Mavs’ season. In Game 2 of that series, having lost two nights before at home, the former Villanova star scored 41 points, snagging eight boards and five assists, all while shooting 6-10 from beyond the arc. The scenario this season is no different. Star Julius Randle has been injured for two weeks and is questionable to return for Game 1. Even if Randle does return, how much of an impact will he make? Last Tuesday, Randle practiced with the team, albeit in a limited capacity. Randle participated in shooting and running drills but no contact drills.
One place in this series where New York can pull ahead will be in the rebounding department. The acquisition of Josh Hart at the trade deadline perfectly sets this up. Hart is arguably the best-undersized rebounder in the Association, and the Cavs’ 41.1 RPG is 25th in the NBA. The Knicks are third in the league with 46.6 RPG. Another critical factor to watch is how each team manages its depth and how many minutes Cleveland plays their starters. The Cavaliers are slightly disadvantaged in this department, as their bench is not particularly deep. The Knicks have shown the NBA time and time again they have one of if not the deepest teams in the league. Quickley has emerged as the leading candidate to win sixth Man of the Year honors, Isaiah Hartenstein has emerged as an elite backup center, and if Randle misses extended time, Obi Toppin has proven he can clean things up in his absence, as Toppin averaged 24.3 PPG without Randle in April.
Despite these advantages for the Knicks, don’t count out the Cavs either. They are the four seed for a reason. Mitchell can turn it on at any moment, evident by his 71-point outburst just three months ago to defeat the Bulls in OT. Power forward Evan Mobley has improved tremendously in his second season, improving in every offensive category other than 3-point shooting. If Mitchell does get contained, the Cavs can lean on Darius Garland to pick up the scoring. We have much to learn about how Cleveland’s young stars will perform in the limelight, as Garland and Mobley make their playoff debuts. Jarrett Allen and Chris LeVert only have a pair of first-round exits. The Cavs’ top four players: Mitchell, Garland, Allen and Mobley are as talented as any squad in the league, but how they use their fifth spot will be something to watch. Issac Okoro has been the starter the most, but LeVert often checks in for close games. Something of note for the Cavaliers is their defensive ratings. They rank first in the league in defensive rating (109.9) and eighth in offensive rating (115.5), which is a testament to the fact they can turn it on their opponents at any time.
Considering this, will Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau lean on the bench or his starters? If Quentin Grimes struggles to contain Mitchell, will Austin McBride be given a chance to guard him? How Thibodeau handles these questions will determine whether or not New York sees the second round of the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. The future is bright for the Knicks; they can make some noise in the first round. This squad is far from the Knicks team we saw against the Hawks in 2021 — this team has a different identity. They just have to prove it.