The Knicks came away with an emphatic Game One victory over the Cavaliers on Saturday and many fans were ecstatic. And they had every reason to be. Brunson continued to prove just how lethal and effective he can be against this Cleveland team, Hart, in his playoff debut, had an incredibly gutsy and impactful performance, and Julius Randle, despite not having his best game, had some big moments in the first and fourth quarters. That said, there are still some concerns looking ahead to the rest of the series.
The play of RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley
In the pivotal Game One victory, Barrett and Quickley, who averaged 19.6 PPG and 14.9 PPG respectively during the season, combined for just 10 points on 2-17 shooting. While it does make Saturday’s win even more impressive, expecting Hart to chip in 17 points off the bench, anticipating Toppin and Hartenstein to combine for 17 more points, and relying on Brunson to come through time and time again down the stretch should not be the Knicks’ recipe for success. Even though Barrett did have one of his better passing (six assists) and defensive games (four steals), New York will likely need to get more from its third- and fourth-leading scorers to beat the Cavaliers three more times.
Randle’s health and play
Randle scored 19 points on 7-20 shooting in his first game back from an ankle injury, but the All-Star forward was far from his usual self. Despite being one of the best first-quarter scorers in the league, Randle came out of the gates looking a bit passive. And even when he did get it going, he seemed a bit tentative in his movements. This isn’t to say that Randle was bad at all. In fact, Randle was clearly the team’s best player outside of the aforementioned Brunson and Hart. But assuming the Cavaliers learn from its Game One loss and make some adjustments, New York may need Randle to give them a bit more. The good news is that Randle will be heading into game two with two days of rest, and his ankle, as well as his conditioning, could be better than it was on Saturday.
Donovan Mitchell will keep being Donovan Mitchell
This is an incredibly scary thought because Mitchell, who poured in 38 points on 14-30 shooting in Game One, played amazingly. And yet, it’s reasonable to believe that he hasn’t even thrown his best punch yet. I mean, we are talking about a player that scored 71 points in a game just three months ago. It’s doubtful that he has that kind of night again, but it wouldn’t and shouldn’t surprise anyone if Mitchell had himself a 40, 45, or even 50-point game at some point this series. But the Knicks cannot be scared or overreact. Sometimes players like Mitchell are damn near impossible to stop, and you just have to make it difficult for them and stop the others. That’s what New York did on Saturday, and that’s what they’ll have to continue doing, regardless of how many incredible shots Mitchell makes.
Evan Mobley revenge game?
The Knicks and their defense deserve some credit for forcing the second-year big man Evan Mobley to score just eight points on 4-of-13 shooting on Saturday. They were able to force some tough looks by being incredibly physical with him. But in fairness, some of it was also just him missing easy shots. And because of that, it’s hard to see them being able to contain him to single-digit scoring throughout the whole series. Mobley, who finished his sophomore campaign averaging 16.2PPG on 55.4% shooting, averaged 13.3PPG on 53.7% against the Knicks this season. Mobley may not have any explosive games this series but it’s reasonable to expect him to be better than he was in Game One going forward.
Josh Hart’s ankle
As mentioned earlier, Hart was one of the biggest reasons New York was able to come away with the Game One win. But late in the fourth quarter, the veteran wing sprained his ankle. It was reported earlier today that Hart was limited during practice and that his availability for game two is uncertain as of now. Needless to say, the Knicks would be missing out on an incredible amount of hustle, defense, and playmaking if he were not able to give it a go. The hope is that Hart can come back as soon as possible and be as close to 100% as possible.
Josh Hart has a sprained left ankle. He participated in parts of practice. His status for Game 2 will be based on how he feels tomorrow morning, Tom Thibodeau says.— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) April 17, 2023
The Knicks’ late-game offense
New York and its late-game offense, or lack thereof, has been a hot topic for a few years now. Even when their offense finds ways to score early in games with Randle’s efficient first quarters, Brunson’s elite isolation scoring, and the increased pace that Thibodeau has slowly but surely implemented, the offense tends to become so painfully and frustratingly stagnant and inefficient down the stretch. Some of that is the fatigue that comes with Thibodeau liking to play his starters big minutes and for long stretches, some of that is coaching, and some is personnel/lack of basketball IQ. And because of that, we saw the Knicks blow a lot of close games, especially at the beginning of the season. On Saturday, Brunson and Hart were able to save the Knicks with some amazing shot-making, but that won’t always be the case. And when the “just give the ball to Brunson and get out the way” strategy fails, the Knicks’ late-game execution may come back to bite them, especially against an elite Cavaliers defense that was one of the best in the league throughout the season. On a few possessions late in the game, the Knicks had one of the guards screen for Brunson to get Darius Garland involved defensively. But the roll man, who should be open and free with Garland hedging and showing on Brunson, often found himself with little space to operate because the spacing on the weakside was nonexistent. For New York to close out these close games in the playoffs, their late-game execution must improve.