As is often the case with four-five matchups in the playoffs, fans, analysts, and reporters seem pretty split on who they think will win the Knicks-Cavaliers series. New York managed to beat Cleveland in three of their four regular season meetings, but Cleveland was generally better for much of the season, evident by their superior seeding. So if the Knicks are to pull of what some may call an upset, what will they need to do?
The stars must show up
In the playoffs, the team with the best player in the series tends to have a big advantage. Unlike baseball or football where one player’s contributions and impact on a game can be limited given the number of players on the field at once, stars can more easily and more often take over a game and will their team to victory. And in a series where all eyes will be on the big names, New York will need it’s stars to show up. Cleveland will be lead by none other than Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland, who will be tasked with running the offense. Garland can beat you with both his passing and outside shot making and will prove to be a difficult cover. And we all know what Mitchell, who has averaged 28.3 PPG, 4.9 APG, and 4.2 RPG in the playoffs, is capable of. Not only is he one of the elite guards when it comes to playoff production, Mitchell also torched the Knicks this season, averaging 31.8 PPG against them. It won’t be easy outplaying the backcourt tandem of Mitchell and Garland, one that has a combined four All-Star game appearance, but Randle and Brunson will need to replicate what they did in the regular season.
For Brunson, there shouldn’t be too much of a worry. During last season’s playoff run, Brunson averaged 21.6 PPG on 46.6% from the field, and averaged 27.8 PPG, 4.2 APG, and 4.8 RPG on 48.4% shooting against a Mitchell-lead Jazz team. And he himself played very well against the Cavaliers this season, averaging 25.3 PPG against them and going off for a career-high 48 points against them not too long ago. There is some concern for Randle though, as he was an incredibly inefficient and disappointing version of himself during his lone 2020-21 playoff series. Against the Hawks, he averaged just 18 PPG on an incredibly inefficient 29.8% from the field. This time around, the hope is that Randle, despite missing the last couple of weeks of the season with an ankle injury, can come back fresh, and be the dominant All-Star the team relied on so heavily throughout the year. Because if both Brunson and Randle can’t be at their best, the Knicks’ offense, one that is so heavily predicated on isolation and one-on-one ability, could fall apart.
Will the good RJ Barrett please stand up
By now, we all know both just how good and how bad Barrett can be. The enigma that is Barrett will likely have a massive impact on how good the Knicks can be and just how far this team can go in these playoffs. If he is the inefficient, indecisive, and inconsistent version of himself that has popped up way too frequently this season, then the Knicks may unfortunately be looking at a first round exit yet again. But, if he can even come close to the player of his two previous seasons, then the Knicks may have the advantage in the series. The fourth-year wing will have to step up and, along with Immanuel Quickley, provide Randle and Brunson the support they will likely need. In four games against Cleveland this season, Barrett averaged a disappointing 15 PPG and 6 RPG on 42.3% shooting but did manage to shoot a very encouraging 43.5% from three, which is significantly higher than his overall season mark.
The bench has to be the difference maker
While there may be some concerns surrounding the stars, New York should have an advantage with the second unit. Neither team ranks high in team bench points per game — in fact, both rank in the bottom five in the league, with New York averaging 29.5 PPG and Cleveland averaging just 28.7 PPG. But when these two teams did meet up in the regular season, the Knicks’ bench outscored the Cavaliers’ bench by almost nine points per game. With Quickley, Josh Hart, and Isaiah Hartenstein manning a second unit that has the potential to change games offensively and defensively, look for the Knicks to try to exploit the bench matchup and try to win those minutes big.
Rebound, rebound, rebound
Lastly, the Knicks will have to be win the rebounding matchup against the Cavaliers. New York, thanks to its physicality and size, was able to finish the season averaging the third most rebounds per game, with 46.6, while Cleveland finished 25th in the league with just 41.1 RPG. And this difference should help out in a big way offensively. The Knicks averaged a whopping 12.6 offensive rebounds per game, good for third in the league. In a series where the offense tends to slow down and the referees allow for some more contact and physicality, New York, especially when their offense struggles, will want to make sure to take advantage of Cleveland’s poor rebounding.