New year, New Cavs.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have officially completed their first regular season with 50 wins or more since 2018, and have had plenty of new experiences to go along with it.
Cavaliers guard Darius Garland spoke on the excitement before his first seven-game playoff series on Thursday. Garland had a featured scoring role in the team’s Play-In matchups the year before but has never played in a seven-game NBA Playoff series of his own.
“An actual seven-game series, it’s going to be fun,” Darius Garland said, via Cleveland.com Cavs reporter Chris Fedor. “I’ve been waiting for it for four years now.
“My first time. My first rodeo. I’m pretty excited for it. I know the adjustments are going to be pretty fun, just to see how you can change on the fly. I’m ready for it. I’m prepared for it. Been watching film all this week. We’ll see how it goes.”
The matchup between the Cavs and the New York Knicks may be an exciting series. Both teams will have something to prove when they take the court against one another in the postseason, with the Cavs looking to add extra playoff experience to a young starting group and the Knicks looking to win their first series since the 2012-13 season.
When the Cavs suit up for a playoff series starting on Saturday, what will be some of the most significant storylines for Cleveland as it faces New York in the postseason?
How will Cleveland’s defense hold up on a bigger stage?
Cavs All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell used more of a serious tone when asked what he wanted to do better defensively than he had in the past during a late-September practice.
“I think a lot of it, for me, is focus and attention to detail,” Mitchell said. “I said it on the radio the other day. I don’t have to do as much offensively. I’m able to lock in on those possessions and I’m not tired. Less tired. I’m getting in better shape to be able to play both sides of the ball.
“It’s not the ability. I can play defense; I know that for a fact. I haven’t shown that & that’s what I’m looking forward to do here.”
It took one promise to show his dedication to continuing the giant leaps the Cavaliers had taken on the defensive side of the floor since the 2018-19 season.
“Top 5 defense,” he said. “I’m not here to bring that down.”
From the outside looking in, it seemed he kept his promise.
Cleveland’s defense, led by the interior play of Cavs center Jarrett Allen and forward Evan Mobley, still leads the league in defensive rating with 109.9 points per 100 possessions. The Cavs ranked in fourth in the NBA with 12.1 opponent second-chance points, while their 12.7 opponent fast break points per game ties with the Knicks near the league’s top.
New York scored as many as 130 points against the Cavaliers this season and as few as 92. Both matchups resulted in wins for the Knicks. They earned point totals of 105 and 108 during another Knicks win and a New York loss, respectively.
Cleveland may have shown the potential to lock down playoff-caliber opponents as they limited the Phoenix Suns to 88 points in January and the Philadelphia 76ers to 85 in November. But will the Cavs’ newer options be ready for some of the bigger games of their young careers?
Will the Cavs’ young options be able to flip the playoff switch in time?
It didn’t take long for Garland to express confidence in himself when asked if he thought he could become the best point guard in the league in November.
“I have a lot of strides to go, but I think I’m one of the top young guards in this league for sure,” Darius Garland told ESPN. “That’s my goal: to be one of the top guards in this league, and hopefully be the best one.”
As the Cavaliers learned during last year’s run for the postseason, it takes time to become timeless. Transitioning to “Playoff Garland” or “Playoff Mobley” will never come easy, not without its trials and tribulations through Cleveland’s first playoff series against New York.
Garland showed flashes of playoff potential when he fought valiantly last season to keep the Cavs’ hopes of earning a spot in the playoffs one season early. He heaped on 34 points against the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving-led Brooklyn Nets before adding 21 against Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks.
But, despite his best efforts, it wasn’t the Cavaliers’ time to make the postseason and play where the lights shine brightest when some of Cleveland’s options hadn’t even turned 23.
Not yet, anyway.
Garland still carries the sting from the Cavaliers’ Play-In Tournament losses, The Athletic Staff Writer Kelsey Russo wrote in a Thursday article.
“All of it,” Garland said, via Russo. “I mean, it’s a long time from last year to now, so it’s been always on my mind.
“So it’s good to finally be in a series instead of a Play-In, actual seven-game series.”
This time, the Cavs may enter Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse more prepared.
The Cavs began preparing for their matchup with the Knicks early, working with booklets and analytic packets before the team’s series against New York.
“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.”
Preparation will be essential for this young Cavs team. Will the early start help boost the youthful Cavs? And how will the team’s home-court advantage ultimately help Cleveland during the series?
Will home-court advantage be enough to push the Cavs past New York?
Home-court advantage can always be an essential part of the NBA Playoffs, one that can be made even more significant for a blooming Cleveland lineup needing some extra playoff experience.
Fortunately, Cleveland have secured home-court advantage in the first round.
The familiarity of Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse and the energy of a crowd that will be seeing its first postseason series in five years will give a much-needed boost to a playoff veteran in Mitchell and some of the postseason newbies alike.
Cleveland ended the regular season with a home record of 31-10, taking early home wins against New York and the Boston Celtics while falling to teams like the Nets and Toronto Raptors. They scored 113.2 points per game at home as opposed to 111.3 on the road, according to NBA.com.
New York ended its assortment of 82 games with a 24-17 away record. Though they averaged 2.5 fewer points per game on the road, New York’s field goal attempts slightly increased when they entered an opponent’s stadium.
Bickerstaff stressed how vital home-court advantage would be going into Cleveland’s playoff series during a practice in March.
“I think, for our guys, who are going through this experience for the first time, the more comfortable they can be, the better,” Bickerstaff said. “I think we’ve all seen the relationship our guys have with our fans and how important our fans are to our guys. How supported our guys feel.
“I do think it would be a huge benefit for us.”
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.