The ferocious crowd. The blinding videos on the jumbotron. The dizzying lights. The piped in smoke. Celebrity Row. Inarguably the league’s most formidable arena, Madison Square Garden can fit 19,763 souls. If a seat was empty at the start of tonight’s contest, the telecast didn’t show it.
And hallelujah! Blue and orange fans left Dolan’s Place happy customers, because their New York Knicks defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 99-79 to take a 2-1 lead in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
No team in the NBA has been held under 80 points this season—until tonight. The Cavaliers had not lost by 20 points all season—until tonight.
The game didn’t start so lopsided, however. Sloppy play and spotty shooting defined the first half, and despite plenty of open long-range looks, neither club could convert.
RJ Barrett must have heard the recent criticism about his postseason career. His passionate play carried a team that couldn’t get buckets. In the first quarter alone, Broadway Barrett had two electrifying coast-to-coast scores and tallied ten points, five rebounds, and a steal on 4-of-6 shooting.
How rough was the shooting? Over the first 12 minutes, Barrett was the only Knick to score from downtown with two treys. From three, New York went 2-for-12 (17%); Cleveland went 1-for-11 (9%). Cleveland didn’t reach double-digits until four minutes left in the first. The Knicks should have capitalized but shot just as poorly, hitting only 6-for-24 from the field.
The two clubs started the second quarter of this slugfest tied with 17 points and 15 rebounds apiece. Barrett kept driving and thriving (to quote the GOAT, Clyde Frazier). His penetration and drives were his best of the season. Brunson began to force holes in the Cleveland defense, too. To wit:
Jalen Brunson showing off the footwork pic.twitter.com/yUBnYNUeOY— Knicks Nation (@KnicksNationCP) April 22, 2023
Not to be outdone, Cleveland’s top dog, Donovan Mitchell began to make noise, too, gradually finding pathways through the paint. When he whiffed on a three attempt with five minutes to go in the half, the hometown fans delighted in their “airball” taunts. (Yours truly unabashedly indulged in the fun from P&T’s Binghamton outpost, too.)
The Knicks protected the ball better than they did in Game Two, coughing it up only seven times in the first half. Another important adjustment: The Cavs’ other All-Star guard, Darius Garland, put on a 32-point clinic in Game Two but struggled tonight. He shot 4-for-21 for 10 points. Pardon my snickers.
Garland was not the only frustrated Cavalier:
What’s Donovan Mitchell saying pic.twitter.com/2CTwcMcFav— New York Basketball (@NBA_NewYork) April 22, 2023
Immanuel Quickley finally found the net from distance, sinking a three-pointer with 28 seconds to go in the half. That, plus a steal by Julius Randle that became a Barrett dunk put New York up 45-32 at the break.
By intermission, New York had shot 45% from the floor and held Cleveland to 31%. Neither team found the long-range stroke, with the Cavs hitting an atrocious 11%. New York was effective against the Cavs’ big frontcourt, scoring 30 points in the paint, and they logged more fast break points, 10 to Cleveland’s two.
A nervous moment occurred shortly before halftime when Quentin Grimes retired to the locker room with a right shoulder contusion. After the mid-point break, Hart started in his place.
Caris LeVert started at small forward in place of Cleveland’s Issac Okoro, who has collected only six points over 26 minutes in this series. LeVert contributed nil through the first half, but his back-to-back threes to start Q3 seemed cause for concern.
Randle answered with a stunning dunk and a cold-blooded three to chase Bickerstaff’s Boys into a timeout.
It seemed certain that the terrible 3-point shooting wouldn’t last. Cleveland sank a few to close the gap. A lead that peaked at 15 points was back to nine when a Danny Green foul sent Josh Hart to the line at the 2:47 mark. He canned both of those and added a three-pointer a minute later to help pad the lead. Hart took over where Barrett left off and under his guidance, the Knicks closed the quarter up 72-55.
Read that again. The Knicks held Cleveland to 55 points through three quarters.
Beauty was beheld on both ends:
Garland turned his ankle in the first minute of the fourth and was teary-eyed on the sideline while being examined. His teammates might have wished for sore ankles on which to blame their poor performances. They completely lost the plot while the Knicks piled on the humiliation.
Garland reemerged after a timeout and promptly canned a three. But Toppin answered immediately with one of his own—and followed THAT with this three-point play:
From there on out, the Knicks were whistling Sweet Georgia Brown. The Cavs got looks, for sure, but a barn’s broadside they could not hit.
If you are standing outside MSG and hear the crowd chant for Derrick Rose, assume the best. Thibs obliged the fans with two and a half minutes of the legend. As if there weren’t enough reasons to smile, that was tonight’s capper.
Oh, and the Knicks’ bench outscored the Cavs’ second crew 39-14. That’s depth, baby.
Quoth foiegrastyle: “YES BABY YES.” Indeed. It’s good to be home at the Mecca, and our heroes will be back on Sunday afternoon for Game Four. Can’t wait. Sweet dreams, Knickerfam.