The NBA postseason arrived in Cleveland for the first time since it last did in 2018 but the Cavs fanatics present at the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse went back home whining after watching their team lose 101-97 to the visiting New York Knicks.
Cleveland (51-31) opened the first-round series with homecourt advantage over New York (47-35) in the tightest battle of the playoff quarterfinals and 48 minutes later they had already lost it in favor of the men coming from Manhattan.
Julius Randle was fit enough to make the starting lineup along with Mitchell Robinson, RJ Barrett, Quentin Grimes, and Jalen Brunson. Randle (sprained ankle) had missed the last five regular-season games and was returning after 17 days spent on the shelves.
So fit was Randle, indeed, that his most impactful play on Saturday’s game arrived so late with the big boy still going strong and staying on the court for the full matchup. “You can’t say enough about the offensive rebound that Jules got at the end. That was a monster play,” coach Tom Thibodeau said.
Thibs, who edged his counterpart J.B. Bickerstaff from the sideline, knew that the Cavs “are long, athletic, and quick to the ball,” so according to the veteran Knicks head coach “you’ve got to get a body to them,” which is what New York did.
“For us, it’s one of the things we do well. We’ve been a good rebounding team all year. We know that’s a big part of our game. And we’re going to have to continue to do it,” said Thibs in his post-game presser.
Randle spent 33:33 minutes on the court, which might sound like a lot but was definitely not considering his regular season and Thibodeau’s rotation. In the 17 games he played after the All-Star break, Randle only logged fewer minutes than Saturday two times—in two 22-point victories against New Orleans and Houston.
Tom Thibodeau on Julius Randle's return to the floor:— Knicks Videos (@sny_knicks) April 16, 2023
"You're gonna get whatever he has. I knew if he could go, he would go." pic.twitter.com/S7DxL8PaMG
“We talked about it before the game. If Julius needed to come out, he’d come out. Get a breather and get back in,” Thibodeau said. “We need everyone, so everyone has to be willing to sacrifice and put everything they have into it and just find a way to win.”
Of course, Thibs was playing mind games all week long leading up to Saturday’s tip-off. The coach had said that Randle “wouldn’t be on a minutes restriction,” although he also acknowledged the medical staff would monitor his conditioning after spending two weeks off the court.
Nothing was clear about Randle’s availability until a few hours before the game started, though, but Thibs always believed in his main man delivering.
“Julius played in 77 games until he sprained his ankle. He practiced every day. What you see in the games, what you see in practice...” started Thibodeau. “You know you’re gonna get whatever he has. And I knew if he could go, he would go. That’s Julius.
“And so, I thought he had a very strong start to the game. And the rebound was huge. Huge,” Thibodeau said. “We all know you’re gonna get everything he has.”
Thibs played it safe first, removing Randle from the court just five minutes into the first quarter and launching Obi Toppin to the fire early. “It worked out,” said the coach after the game. “There are guidelines for minutes, and we know what his normal minutes are. So if he needs it low, we’ll get him out. Let him get his breather, get him back in.”
The Knicks had the lead for most of the game but they gave it back to Cleveland with just two minutes and change left in the game.
"They're a terrific team. We know we're gonna have to play a lot better than we did tonight."— Knicks Videos (@sny_knicks) April 16, 2023
Tom Thibodeau on the Knicks' Game 1 win: pic.twitter.com/xzs1thd9lw
“That’s playoff basketball,” Thibodeau told the media after earning the win and a 1-0 series lead.
Not entirely happy with the performance to get the series started, though, Thibodeau warned his players stating that “we know we’re gonna have to play a lot better than we did tonight.”
Thibodeau thinks dependability “is a big part of the league,” and so the coach believes “to be able to count on each other is important so we don’t want anyone out there who’s injured.” Thibs added that his team “don’t want to put anyone in harm’s way,” and he praised Randle for making the extra effort after not playing for two weeks. “If you can give us something, give us what you have... that’s what I’m proud of Julius for. He gave us what he had.”
Second game tips off at 7:30 EST on Tuesday. Knicks up 1-0. Cavs hosting them once more. Don’t miss it.