This is not how it was supposed to go. The 2023 NBA Playoffs were to be the place the Cleveland Cavaliers formally announced themselves as a serious threat to the Eastern Conference crown. Now, they head back to the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse down 3-1 to the New York Knicks, just one game away from being routinely dismissed from the first round.
The Cavs were constructed to compete in the playoffs. Not just because of the all-in moves the organization has made but because of the roster’s balance. They have guard play, a strong interior presence, perimeter threats and capable defensive wings. Donovan Mitchell provided the necessary experience and top-guy firepower to bring everything together. A year for the whole team to get their postseason sea legs was expected, but the Knicks have so clearly looked like the superior team thus far in this series.
Cleveland looked undisciplined on both ends of the floor in crucial stretches in Game 4 and again saw its frontcourt fade into the background too frequently. They can’t afford any of those mishaps in Game 5.
Now, none of that is to say the Knickerbockers are not a really good team. They clearly have been underestimated, including by myself. But I don’t believe the Cavaliers have been overestimated by the public, either.
Head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has adjustments to make and impassioned speeches to give ahead of Wednesday’s win-or-go-home matchup. But we are not ready to fully move on from this roller-coaster Sunday. It is unfortunately time for the finger-pointing to begin.
Here are the 3 Cavs most to blame for the painful, 102-93, Game 4 loss to the Knicks.
1. Donovan Mitchell
Mitchell has been productive overall, scoring 43 and 38 points in Games 1 and Game 2, respectively. But when a star shoots 5-of-18 from the field and 0-of-4 from 3-point territory and turns the ball over six times, he has to be labeled the primary scapegoat.
Mitchell was overeager at times, much like the entire perimeter attack (we’ll get to that more later). He was practically invisible in the second half even when his team awakened from their first-half slumber. A herculean effort was needed to contain the roof-blowing enthusiasm in Madison Square Garden. Instead, a brilliant defensive game plan implemented by head coach Tom Thibodeau and executed by his guys on the floor sent Mitchell out the building with a whimper. For now anyways.
Darius Garland was instrumental in Cleveland’s big surge to take the lead, but a complete effort by a lethal one-two punch is needed the rest of the way. The collective offensive stagnancy proves that. Mitchell- 28.3 points per game on a 48.4/38.6/86.7/ shooting line in the regular season- is an All-NBA talent capable of putting this team on his back. Hopefully he doesn’t have to in Game 5, but the 26-year-old has to arrive with the mentality and ability to do so.
2. Jarrett Allen gets some blame for Cavs loss vs. Knicks
Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen was quite objectively the team’s second most valuable offensive player in Game 4 and among the most efficient offensive players in the entire 2023 NBA Playoffs, according to Booker Muse. And yet, his shortcomings in the rebounding department were severe enough to warrant his unfortunate placement on this list.
Highest offensive rating this playoffs (minimum 100 minutes):
162.8 — Torrey Craig
144.1 — Jarrett Allen
140.5 — Derrick White
140.0 — Tobias Harris
134.4 — Mike Conley
134.1 — Nic Claxton
132.0 — Austin Reaves
130.1 — Devin Booker
Surprised? 👀 pic.twitter.com/0hGTucCFJQ
— Booker Muse (@DevinBookerMuse) April 23, 2023
Allen grabbed just 4 boards and was too often overpowered down low by both Mitchell Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein. New York’s big men combined for 19 rebounds and effectively set the physical tone Thibodeau demands from them. The battle inside is a pivotal one for Cleveland to win and reflects in the scoreboard.
It is hard to pick on Allen given how vital he has been for this franchise’s recent growth, but he needs to impose himself on the Knicks frontcourt. It should be said that the 47-33 rebound disadvantage is not all on him and was partly due to the Knicks’ successful floor spacing. Though, Allen is a high-impact player who is simply better than that showing.
He needs to remind Robinson of that fact Wednesday night.
3. Caris LeVert
Caris LeVert is another player who left solid imprint in the box score. He nearly had a double-double with 14 points and nine rebounds and was solid down the stretch for the most part. The reason to single out the 28-year-old out of Michigan, though, is his cold start and ill-advised shot-selection.
LeVert has chucked up several 3-point shots over the last two road games and has seen few go in. He needs to exercise more discretion. The Cavs are not going to shoot themselves out of slumps. A redirect to the paint, which could then lead to the free throw line, is the more prudent approach. Especially since Evan Mobley has been to quiet in these games.
LeVert can still get a healthy number of looks while also opening up the court for others. Good offensive possessions are a must if this team is going to climb back into postseason relevance. The Knicks, like the Cavs, defend very well, but it is time for Bickerstaff and company to make them earn it instead of just handing them momentum.
The good news is the Cleveland Cavaliers have a knack for turning on the switch at a moment’s notice. Well, they are running of moments, so expect a sense of desperation to lead to a much more clean and efficient basketball product vs. the Knicks.
Now, Game 4’s misery can officially be wiped away from the memory of Cavs fans.