The Knicks are back in the playoffs. After an embarrassing smacking in the first round of the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season, followed by Julius Randle losing his cool for an entire season leading to missing the playoffs, the Knicks are back in the postseason. Few foresaw this turnaround. Well, few but me. In our pre-season roundtable, I was the only one who predicted a 50 burger or getting out of the first round. We missed the 50 burger due to a late-season Julius Randle ankle injury. But a 47 burger not only tastes good, it’s way more than the mainstream prognosticators had us winning. And that deep playoff run? It’s on its way.
The first stop is in Cleveland for Game 1 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team we beat 3-1 in the regular season. With or without Julius Randle playing in Game 1 from his ankle injury, I ain’t scared in the slightest for this 4/5 seed matchup. Toppin brings the right amount of transition game to give the Cavs' half-court dominant defense fits. The Cavs were also dead last in pace this season, another sign Toppin can earn his extension in this series. Not only did we smack them in the playoffs, but we have them beat in every single matchup (point guard, small forward, power forward, center, head coach, and bench) but shooting guard. The Cavs are the weakest and most beatable team of the top four in the East. They only have a four-game lead on us as well. The two teams started off in opposite directions at the beginning of the season. The Cavs took off thanks to monster scoring by new addition Donovan Mitchell, who the Knicks were in the running for until Danny Ainge decided to fuck us for shits and giggles.
The Knicks were awful in 2022 until Tom Thibodeau shortened the rotation to nine guys on December 9th. The first team they beat with this new approach? The Cavaliers. Legends have a way of using irony as a trope. Up until that point, Thibodeau was on the hot seat. There was even talk among the hallowed halls of Madison Square Garden he was to be fired. His rotation change, sending former starters Cam Reddish and Evan Fournier into the DNP zone, along with his favorite crutch Derrick Rose, saved his ass and the season.
The Knicks look to continue their evolution in year three of the rebuild. A playoff win is essential to showing that Thibodeau is the coach of the future. We know he can drag teams out of dysfunction and into a competitive and feisty winners. But he has failed to jumpstart the Knicks and the Minnesota Timberwolves in his last stop in the post-season. He only made the post-seasons once with both teams and lost in five games in the first round with both as well. He will be matched up against an opposing team and a head coach with zero playoff experience. He has the advantage. Nothing can take away the overwhelming success of the regular season. But how the Knicks perform in the playoffs this year will and should determine the future of Thibodeau as the guy who can take this team to the next level. I believe he can.
Darius Garland is not better than Jalen Brunson. I felt compelled to say that as I’ve seen whack Twitter discourse saying otherwise. That’s not to say Garland is a solid point guard. He is. But is he top 10? Hell no. Is he better than Brunson? Hell no. We should expect Garland to average around 23 PPG this series, but the key is limiting his three-pointers. He’s shooting 41% this season, good for best of the regular rotation. Limiting his ability to stretch the defense is a key to the series.
Donovan Mitchell will average more than 30 PPG in this series. The sooner we come to terms with that, the better. But Mitchel can't beat us by himself. And Quentin Grimes has been guarding the league’s best players all season with some of the best on-ball defense. He will be tasked with guarding Mitchell, the Cavs' clear best player all series. Mitchell will be looking to beat the team he likely grew up rooting for as a native New Yorker. But it’s not Mitchell we have to stop to win this series, it’s the other guys.
Isaac Okoro is the weak link in the Cavaliers' starting five. Sure, he is an elite perimeter defender and shoots a respectable .36% from three, but he is a non-factor on offense. Okoro will be tasked with finding Brunson on switches, using his wing span to deter him. This will leave RJ Barrett to post up the smaller Cavs guards. Brunson will likely be given Okoro as his defensive assignment, which will allow him to help on defense, leaving Okoro open is the Knicks' best option of the five.
Evan Mobley is a future superstar. He is already one of the best post-defenders in the league. But he is still only in his second year and 21 years old. He will be tasked with guarding one of the top three power forwards in the NBA in Julius Randle. Whether Randle sits out Game One or not doesn't matter, as Obi Toppin has been balling in his steed. Both players give completely different matchup problems for Mobley. This will be one of the learning curves for the young star on his way toward an elite career.
Jarrett Allen and Mitchell Robinson are the intangibles matchup to watch. The centers are about even, as Allen is the better scorer and power player, while Robinson is the better offensive rebounder and shot blocker. The Knicks sorely missed Robinson in their matchup with the Hawks two years ago. He is sure to be primed to remind everyone of his impact on defense. He must stay out of foul trouble while limiting the Cavs' star backcourt dribble penetration. For all the pettiness Robinson has expressed on social media about touches and cardio, this is his moment to shut up the haters and cement his place as one of the league’s best bigs.
Knicks take Game 1 by single digits.