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How the Knicks can slow down Donovan Mitchell

Not an easy task.

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NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at New York Knicks Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

All eyes will be on Donovan Mitchell during the Knicks’ first-round matchup against the Cavaliers, and rightfully so. Mitchell, an elite guard that finished the season averaging a career-high 28.3 PPG, is making his first playoff appearance as a Cavalier, and was very closely linked with the Knicks just last offseason. But the eyes that will be on him won’t just be those of the fans and the media. The Knicks players and coaching staff will have their hands full trying to make sure that they keep an eye on him at all times and do what they can to try to slow down the scoring machine that is Mitchell.

But before we get into how they can do that, let’s digest just how good Mitchell is and has been. Josh Hart, who spent a healthy chunk of his minutes guarding Mitchell when these two teams met up in March, said of Mitchell, “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.”

And Hart is far from the only one to sing Mitchell’s praises. Tom Thibodeau, the defensive-minded coach who must devise a plan to stop Mitchell, spoke very highly of the Cavaliers guard as well, saying, “He’s very difficult and shifty. And so you can cross over away on pick-and-rolls. You can split pick-and-rolls. But I think him adding that to his game really changed his game. And he’s great off the dribble. He’s versatile in the sense you can play him with the ball, you can play him off the ball, so you have to be ready for both. And he’s not afraid. He’s a great competitor.”

So how exactly do the Knicks go about containing Mitchell? First and foremost, they’ll have to limit his easy opportunities. This goes without saying, but as is the case when you defend any great offensive player in the NBA, you have to make sure that they can’t get wide-open looks. These players today are so talented and skilled that a layup or a wide-open dunk can sometimes be all that is needed to get them rolling toward a 40 or 50-point game.

Secondly, they’ll want to be aggressive and locked in at the point of attack. Mitchell, who spends a lot of his time as the primary ball handler, averaged 9.3 pick-and-roll possessions per game, good for 10th in the league. And against the Knicks this season, he went 6-6, 1-7, 4-9, and 6-10 off the pick and roll this season. You can see that in the first and last games (where he scored 38 and 42 respectively), he was incredibly efficient in the pick-and-roll. Whereas in the middle two games though, they did a better job on pick and rolls and limited him to 23 and 24 points, respectively. This will be a tough task and will have to be a collective effort. Obviously, the initial defender must do their job to make it tough for Mitchell with consistent effort and physicality, because Mitchell is not someone you can simply go under on screens. But guys like Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson, and Isaiah Hartenstein must be sure to hedge hard on Mitchell when he turns the corner. Because Mitchell, one of the league’s more athletic guards, is just as lethal going downhill as he is from beyond the arc. And when the big man does come out to hedge, the rest of the team needs to make sure that they rotate onto the appropriate players.

Thirdly, New York must contain Mitchell’s 3-point game. This was alluded to earlier, but Mitchell is a deadly shooter. This season, Mitchell, who averaged 9.3 three-point attempts per game, was fourth in the league in total threes made. In the two highest-scoring games against the Knicks this season, Mitchell shot incredibly well from outside, going 8-13 in his 38-point game and 6-9 in his 42-point game. But in his two lower-scoring games, Mitchell managed to go a combined 8-25. The former Jazz is a true three-level scorer but a lot of his downhill attacking is predicated on and plays off of his ability to torch teams from beyond the arc. If the Knicks can get in his space and throw his outside game off a bit, it could go a long way in slowing down Mitchell.

Lastly, they’ll need to make him work on defense. Whoever Mitchell ends up guarding, the Knicks should look to put him in a lot of screen actions and off-ball movement to get Mitchell as tired as possible. It may not do a lot but in a series that figures to be both physical and closely contested, wearing and tiring him down could end up making a noticeable difference the longer the series goes.

Again, it needs to be mentioned that this is no easy task. Mitchell has repeatedly showcased a unique and fascinating combination of deadly shooting, mesmerizing handles, and highlight-inducing athleticism. And Mitchell, who only failed to score 20 points 15 times this season and just six times in his 39 playoff games, is averaging 28.3PPG in the playoffs. We also can’t forget to mention the energy he’ll likely have playing against the hometown team he almost joined less than 12 months ago. But, in a playoff atmosphere where the game slows down a bit and the physicality increases, the Knicks, who had stretches of being a top-10 defensive team this season, have the ability and the potential to make things difficult for Mitchell. With grit, energy, and a combination of Quentin Grimes, Immanuel Quickley, and the aforementioned Hart (all of whom should see minutes guarding Mitchell), New York may just have enough to not fully stop, but slow down Mitchell.