For the first time in five seasons, the Cleveland Cavaliers have earned their spot in playing past the 82-game regular season and the opportunity to showcase the talent of their up-and-coming lineup on one of the league’s biggest stages.
On April 15, it will be Cleveland’s turn to show how far it has come since the 2017-18 season. Since it had the league’s 29th-ranked adjusted defensive rating and the Cavs’ one-hour film session to fix its issues with then-head coach John Beilein in 2019. Since the three-straight losing seasons and the 155-228 record since Cleveland’s last NBA Finals appearance in 2018.
And since it fell just short of making a playoff appearance before losses to the Brooklyn Nets and the Atlanta Hawks in the Play-In Tournament.
The Cavs began their preparation for their matchup with the Knicks early on. They worked with booklets and analytic packets before the team’s series against the New York Knicks begins in Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, according to the Athletic Cavs staff writer Kelsey Russo.
“You have to start preparing things, and we’re working on booklets and analytic packets and videos and all those things that you have to start with,” Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said Saturday, via Russo. “And we’ve been fortunate to kind of know who our opponent was going to be, so we could delegate that stuff to get us at a good spot when we need to start.”
The Knicks have taken a 3-1 series advantage over the Cavs in the regular season, losing once in Cleveland before winning three straight games in Madison Square Garden and Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.
How will the Cavs earn their keep against New York in the playoffs? And will they have the firepower needed to advance to the second round and beyond?
Bickerstaff’s positive response about his confidence level in what the Cavs can do against New York in the first round of the NBA Playoffs provided a reassuring answer to his faith in this young Cavs corps.
“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.”
Call it a simple take. Give credit where credit is due to New York’s depth and the performances Knicks forward Julius Randle and guard Jalen Brunson have had as the season has gone on.
But Mitchell has been here before.
The 26-year-old guard has made the postseason in every one of his six NBA seasons. His time in the playoffs goes back to 2018, when he scored 27 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in an 8-point loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder as a member of the Utah Jazz. Utah would take that series in six games before falling in five to the James Harden and Chris Paul-led Houston Rockets.
New York guard Josh Hart, who has faced Cleveland once as a member of the Knicks, had high praise for the guard he shared the same draft class with.
“He’s a really good scorer at all three levels,” Hart said, via Russo. “He’s efficient at all three levels. A lot of times, you want guys to try to force them to do something that they’re not comfortable with. And he’s someone who’s obviously athletic, is able to finish above the rim, finish through contact.
“He’s strong, has an explosive first step. He has that, but then he’s shooting 38 percent from 3 on, like, nine to 10 3s a game.”
Mitchell has played in all four contests against the Knicks this season, scoring an average of 31.8 points and dishing 7.5 assists per game. The All-Star Cavs guard took up a spot at the point in the absence of guard Darius Garland on Oct. 30, who was sidelined with an eye injury he suffered during the team’s season opener.
Mitchell could be a key player in helping the Cavs take down the Knicks in the playoffs and provide them with a scoring punch when they need it the most.
But, even in a star-driven league, it takes more than the talents of one lead guard to take a team past the first round.
Star-Studded Cavs Supporting Cast
While Mitchell has earned his time in the spotlight throughout the season, Cleveland can’t count out the promising supporting cast he has around him.
Garland has averaged 21.6 points per game throughout the season and 19.7 per contest against the Knicks, peaking at 22 when New York claimed a 2-point victory over the Cavs at Madison Square Garden in late January, according to Basketball Reference.
Forward Evan Mobley, who drew Hall-of-Fame comparisons from Cavs guard Ricky Rubio in late March, averaged 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game against New York, swatting as many as four shots when Cleveland first took on New York at the Garden in December.
Center Jarrett Allen, who defended Randle in Cleveland’s first matchup with the Knicks, scored as many as 24 points while bringing down 12 rebounds during New York’s close win in January.
Though he said it was still a work in progress, Garland credited Mobley and Allen’s decision-making following a 118-93 win over the Toronto Raptors at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in late February.
“It’s still growing, but they’re both my bigs,” said Garland. “It’s just a work in progress, but it’s getting a lot easier. Everybody’s worried about Don on opposite sides, so the pocket is always open.
“I just let them make the plays from there. They’re really good decision-makers with the ball in their hand. I have a lot of trust in them when I hit them in the pocket.”
Defensive Stopping Power
Offense sells tickets, College Football Hall of Fame head coach Bear Bryant once said, but defense wins championships.
New York’s offense currently ranks fourth in the NBA in offensive rating at 117.0, putting them ahead of the Denver Nuggets (116.8), Dallas Mavericks (115.9) and Atlanta Hawks (115.5).
Cleveland’s defense, led by the interior play of Allen and Mobley, still leads the league in defensive rating with 109.9 points per 100 possessions, taking spots ahead of Eastern Conference rivals in the Boston Celtics (110.6) and the Milwaukee Bucks (110.9).
The duo of Allen and Mobley’s defensive performances throughout the season earned them Defensive Player of the Year praise from Cavs guard Caris LeVert, who averaged 7.3 points and 4.8 assists per game in Cleveland’s four games against New York this season.
“I think (Evan Mobley) ‘s top-3 in Defensive Player of the Year,” LeVert said in a March practice. “I think (Jarrett Allen) should be there too, to be honest with you. Just with how he impacts the game, pick and rolls, being that anchor for us at the rim, defensively, protecting and then switching out on guards, too.
“There’s not many bigs who can move the way he can and pick things up as quickly as he can on the fly. He’s been super valuable for our defense.”
Cleveland will certainly be tested during its first playoff matchup since the era of the four-year Finals battle with the Golden State Warriors. But, with home-court advantage on their side, and with the contributions of the Cavs’ best players, the Cleveland Cavaliers could prove victorious in their first time facing New York in the playoffs since the 1995-96 season.
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.