It’s playoff time, Cavs Nation.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have secured their spot in the playoffs for just over a few weeks, marking the first time the team has made it to the postseason without star forward LeBron James since 1998. Cleveland clinched the fourth seed in the East after a loss to the Charlotte Hornets, and their place in the postseason with a 108-91 win over the Houston Rockets in March.
It’s time for the Cavs to show the rebuild is officially over. To show they can contend with some of the best in the Eastern Conference. To display the team’s growth since it began its transitional period following the 2018 NBA Finals.
Cleveland’s turbulent start to the season, highlighted by an 8-game winning streak after a loss during the home opener, ended in what would be a welcomed change of results after three straight losing seasons and slipping in the Play-In the season before.
The Cavaliers ended the 2022-23 regular season with a 1-3 record against the New York Knicks, taking their first game at home in late October before dropping the next three matchups scattered throughout the year. New York Knicks forward Julius Randle has missed New York’s final five games with a sprained left ankle, and though he has gone through parts of practice so far this week, he has yet to go through contact drills, according to the Athletic staff writer Fred Katz.
Will Cleveland’s defense hold up to New York’s offense? Who will shine through when their team needs them the most? And will this be the year the Cavs win their first playoff series since the 2017-18 season?
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3. Donovan Mitchell will be the best player in the series, and Cleveland’s supporting cast won’t be too far behind him
Donovan Mitchell has already proven he can be the engine that runs this Cleveland Cavaliers offense.
He leads the team with 28.3 points per game on a 48.4% shooting percentage, ending the regular season with 13 contests of 40 points or more, according to Basketball Reference. In January, his season was highlighted by a career-high 71-point outburst against a Central Division rival in the Chicago Bulls. The historical performance, one that saw Mitchell hit 22 of his 34 shot attempts and seven of his 15 3-point shots, prompted a message from former Cavs guard Mark Price via a January tweet.
“Well done @spidadmitchell,” Price wrote. “You put on a show last night! Thank you for giving the @Cavs family a night we will never forget! #CavsOnTheRise.”
But one can’t count out the supporting cast or the young stars with important roles when facing New York in Cleveland and Madison Square Garden.
Darius Garland, who averaged 21.6 points on a 46.2% shooting percentage and a 41.0% clip from the 3-point line, has a few games of 40 points or more under his belt. A skilled scorer and playmaker for the Cavs, his role on offense will prove to be highly crucial to counter a team that features three players who score 19 points per game or more.
Allen’s ability to lock down the interior and anchor this Cavs’ defense has been excellent. He finished the regular season with 9.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game, while his 30.9 opponent points in the paint per game put him on par with Atlanta Hawks center Clint Capela (30.8) and Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (30.8), according to NBA.com.
Forward Evan Mobley, who averaged 13.3 points and 7.8 rebounds in Cleveland’s four contests with the Knicks, will have to be an X-factor for Cleveland whether the Cavs play at home or travel to New York. His mobility and versatility on defense will make him noteworthy when attempting to counter an offense that ties with the Philadelphia 76ers with a 117 offensive rating while placing second in the league in offensive rebounding percentage with 31.8%.
The versatile forward set high expectations for himself in February.
“Being an All-Star, being a top guy in the league, I’ve always envisioned that,” Mobley told the Beacon Journal on Saturday during a promotional event with Panini America. “I definitely have high hopes. I’m just going to keep striving to get better and better so I can be that.”
2. Cleveland’s defense will find a way to keep New York’s offense at bay
After an 82-game regular season, Cleveland still finished with the highest defensive rating in the league. They allowed 109.9 points per 100 possessions, while New York placed 19th with a rating of 114.2.
A combination of defensive play from Cleveland’s big duo in Allen and Mobley and active play from the team’s guards on the perimeter defined a defense that took the No. 1 spot in defensive rating in late January.
“They’re hard to score on in the paint,” Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “(Evan Mobley) is an All-Defensive Team player himself.
“We’re extremely fortunate to have two guys who can defend the way they can defend. When they’re working together, you’re hard-pressed to find easy looks out there.”
New York’s roster features a talented slew of players who can contribute on offense, including guard Jalen Brunson and forward R.J. Barrett. Brunson is scoring 24 points per game for the Knicks, while Barrett is adding 19.6 of his own.
Cleveland will likely have a defensive stopper in forward Isaac Okoro back for its first-round playoff matchup, according to the Associated Press. The Cavs are counting on the former first-round pick out of Auburn to at least slow Brunson down, Associated Press writer Tom Withers wrote in a Thursday article.
“It’s one of Isaac’s strengths defending a guy like that,” Bickerstaff said, via the Akron Beacon Journal. “Obviously, Brunson is a heck of a player. He’s extremely talented and has proven to be clutch in the brightest moments, but those are the challenges that Isaac accepts and he loves.”
Should he return in time, and Cleveland keeps pace with their league-leading defensive rating, the Cavs have a real chance to slow down a team with a high offensive rating and keep New York’s scorers at bay for as long as the team needs.
1. Cleveland will take the series in seven games
This matchup was never going to be easy for a blossoming Cavaliers roster.
But the Cavaliers have overcome a lot to get to this year’s postseason.
Once known for their ability to fight back and claim a victory just when it seemed out of reach, Cleveland had cemented its 11th comeback when down by double-digits and ninth when trailing by the third quarter by the middle of January. Though their resilience couldn’t help them overcome every deficit, the Cavaliers were able to pull off a magical run that saw them down by four points with under 30 seconds remaining, capped off by an Okoro 3-pointer to give them the lead with 0.7 seconds left.
If they are fully healthy, a resilient and determined Cavs team will have everything they need to prove Bickerstaff’s confidence in them right and emerge victorious in seven games after a hard-fought series against a rising team in the Eastern Conference.
“I’m confident in our group, period,” Bickerstaff said, via Bally Sports Ohio. “I believe, when we’re at our best, we’re a tough out for anybody. We need to make sure we’re aware and tighten up the details and the execution and all those things.
“It’s going to be a new test for us. We have guys that are going to be in their first playoff series. It’s never going to come easy, but I have a lot of confidence in our group.”
Game 1 between the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks will be held at 6 p.m. EDT on Saturday, April 15. The game will be broadcasted on ESPN.