It has been a long time since the Cleveland Cavaliers earned a spot in the playoffs without LeBron James.
Cavs guard Donovan Mitchell was nearly two years old when Cleveland, led by Shawn Kemp, Wesley Person and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, faced off against the Reggie Miller-led Pacers in the 1998 NBA playoffs.
Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff played in his final season at Oregon State before he transferred to Minnesota. He played in 28 games and started in 24 for a Beavers team that included a future Chicago Bull in guard Corey Benjamin.
Their last playoff series win without James came in 1993, when the Mark Price and Larry Nance-led Cavs knocked off the New Jersey Nets in the Coliseum at Richfield after five games. 13 Cavs players hadn’t been born yet during that series.
Though Mitchell said the team should come to a point where “making the playoffs and continuously pushing forward” is expected of them, he took the time to appreciate what went into Cleveland’s push for the playoffs in a postgame press conference.
“You want to appreciate every step along the way,” said Mitchell. “It’s definitely a blessing. I don’t want to downplay the moment, but in the same token, this is, and I told the guys in there, this is what you’ve come to expect. You made your first one.
“Appreciate it, enjoy it. Celebrate it for the city, for the organization, for your individual guys who have made it.”
The New York Knicks sit five games behind the Cavs for fifth place in the Eastern Conference following a win over the Houston Rockets on Monday. The Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets are 2.5 games behind them in the East standings.
Should the East stay in its current spots, and the Knicks win just enough games to remain within Cleveland’s range, how would the Cavs stand against a hopeful playoff competitor in the New York Knicks?
As always, Cavs Nation, it helps to go over the basics.
According to RealGM, this potential matchup will be the first time the Cavs will face New York in the playoffs since the 1995-96 season. The Knicks knocked off the Cavs in three games before falling in five to the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls in the East semi-finals.
With a 112-108 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, the Knicks sealed their second 40-win season in just over one decade. New York made its first playoff series since forward Carmelo Anthony was on the roster in the 2020-21 season, when the Atlanta Hawks took them down in five games in the first round.
The Knicks are currently fifth in the NBA in offensive rating at 116.6, putting them 0.3 points behind the Philadelphia 76ers and 0.5 behind the Boston Celtics. They sit at 19th in defensive rating, far below the fourth-place spot they once held before their playoff run in 2021.
Forward Julius Randle and guard Jalen Brunson lead the team at 25.4 points and 23.8 points per game, respectively. Forward RJ Barrett, who faced off against now-Cleveland forward Mamadi Diakite as a Duke Blue Devil in 2019, ranks third on the team with 19.7 points per game.
Cleveland has faced the Knicks on three occasions this season, once in Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse and twice in Madison Square Garden. The Cavs took the first game on their home court before falling in two straight matchups at the Garden.
Mitchell said he went up to try and dunk over Knicks center Isaiah Hartenstein before both his legs cramped and his groin tightened up on him on the final possession of the late-January loss in New York.
“I know he wants to go step-back left,” said Randle, who funneled Mitchell to the right side of the lane in the game’s final possession. “Obviously, I don’t want to give up a three. Just trying to get it to him and force it to his right.
“He took the drive to the rim, and Isaiah just did a great job of using his verticality.”
The team with the higher seed is granted home-court advantage in the first three rounds of the playoffs, while the squad with the better regular season record earns the advantage in the NBA Finals, according to NBC Sports.
An assortment of injuries led to 20 different starting lineups over 76 games.
Cleveland is 20-9 when they roll out their most-used lineup of Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Isaac Okoro, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, according to Basketball Reference. A lineup of the team’s big four and forward Lamar Stevens has been used 10 times, gaining a record of 7-3.
As the season rapidly progressed, so did Cleveland’s lineups against New York. Both sides rolled out three different starting units.
Game 1 (Oct. 30):
CLE: Donovan Mitchell, Dean Wade, Caris LeVert, Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen.
NYK: Jalen Brunson, Evan Fournier, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson.
Mitchell took up a spot at the point in the absence of Garland, who was sidelined with an eye injury he suffered during the team’s season opener against the Toronto Raptors. He ended the night with 38 points and 12 assists as Cleveland took a 121-108 win over New York in Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.
Game 2 (Dec. 4):
CLE: Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Lamar Stevens, Mamadi Diakite, Evan Mobley.
NYK: Jalen Brunson, Quentin Grimes, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson.
Diakite earned his second start of the season as Allen missed the night with a right hip injury he suffered during a late-November matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks. Diakite took down two rebounds and blocked one shot in nearly 11.5 minutes of play, taking on-ball responsibilities for guards and bigs alike as the Knicks took home a 92-81 victory in the Garden.
Game 3 (Jan. 24):
CLE: Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Isaac Okoro, Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen.
NYK: Jalen Brunson, Quentin Grimes, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, Jericho Sims.
Mobley matched up with Randle on defense during Cleveland’s second game in New York. Even after multiple defenders rotated onto him, Randle ended the night with 36 points and 13 rebounds, leading New York to a 105-103 win at home.
Randle, who is leading the Knicks in scoring for the third straight season, is averaging 23 points, 10.3 rebounds and five assists per game in the three matchups between the two Eastern Conference competitors.
Though Allen fought valiantly to stay in front of Randle, the 28-year-old forward used more finesse than power to score 15 points against the Cavs defense in Game 1. Allen would continue to serve as the team’s anchor on defense in October, but would quickly try to recover on the outside when the ball was kicked out to Randle in the corner.
Brunson averaged 17.7 points per game against the Cavs in their three matchups this season, going as high as 23 in early December.
Barrett commented on Brunson’s role in the team’s success after he missed a series of games with a foot injury earlier this month.
“He’s a great player for us, he’s our floor general, we definitely miss having him on the floor,” Barrett said. “But while he’s out, we’ve got to figure it out. We’ve got to figure out how to get these wins.
“Every game is intense now from start to finish. We’ve got to figure it out somehow, try to get easy ones, things like that.”
Mobley became the primary defender of Robinson in the team’s first matchup on Oct. 30 and again on Dec. 4. He served as an interior anchor for New York’s defense in both Cleveland and Madison Square Garden, pulling down eight defensive rebounds at home while occasionally moving out to the 3-point line to defend perimeter shots.
Barrett, who nearly led New York with a career-high 20 points per game last season, defended Garland during Games 2 and 3 against the Cavs this year.
The Knicks experimented with playing Barrett at the power forward spot after forward Obi Toppin was injured in early December.
“We’ll figure it out. I like the idea of RJ being there some,” said Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau. “I think he showed us last year how effective he can be at the four, so I think that can be a possibility.”
Cleveland will take on the Knicks again during the regular season at 7:30 p.m. EDT on Friday in Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. The game will be broadcasted on Bally Sports Ohio.