Ok, so I’m two for three in my predictions. I could really care less as long as the Knicks win, right? And what a win Game Three was. I have been one of Tom Thibodeau’s most prominent critics this season. But something happened in January when Thibs finally started adjusting. Of course, some Knicks fans want to credit lead assistant Johnnie Bryant. And he’s certainly been a positive influence. Just ask Immanuel Quickley or Julius Randle. But I like to think after being a head coach for 13 years and three stops, Thibs has evolved.
He made all the proper adjustments from Game Two to Three, having Quentin Grimes, RJ Barrett, and Immanuel Quickley set screens for Jalen Brunson, negating Mitchell Robinson catching the ball at the top of the key after Brunson had to hand it off from being blitzed. This kept the ball in the hands of our ball handlers and allowed the entire team, from Barrett to Julius Randle to Obi Toppin, to play make. Brunson led the way with six assists and a team-high 21 points. Free from the blitzes, Brunson carved up the Cavaliers’ defense, using his elite footwork to take Evan Mobley and Caris LeVert off the dribble. The Knicks also took advantage of the Cavs’ 20 turnovers, turning them into 28 points in the game, helping Toppin and Isaiah Hartenstein get easy baskets.
Thibs also made sure to get Barrett going from the opening tip. After going a combined 6-for-25 in Games 1 and 2 in Cleveland, Barrett dropped 10 points in the first quarter and finished with an efficient 19 on 8-12 shooting. It was the best playoff game of Barrett’s short career. As I have said numerous times on this site, he’s 22 years old. Let's give him some grace and allow him to grow in his role. He has been a terrible shooter. There’s no denying he’s taken a step back in his shooting growth. But the kind ever gets rattled. He’s just built different. It’s fair to say he has the mentality of a superstar, his game just hasn’t caught up. It’s unknown if it ever will. But if he can continue dropping 18-20 points a game on efficient shooting splits, the Knicks could go on a deep playoff run.
The Cavs had to feel pretty goofy after posting pictures of the team posing in the locker room, trying to appear tough, after winning Game Two. All that just to get smacked once they hit the road and encountered the best fanbase in all sports in The Garden. The Knicks won 99-79, holding the Cavs to the fewest points by any team in the NBA this season to take a 2-1 series lead. Barrett, Grimes, and Quickley took turns locking up Cavs point guard Darius Garland, holding him to 4-for-21 from the field after he hunted Brunson on ball screens for 32 points in Game 2. The Cavs, in total, shot just 36.8% in the game.
Now the Cavs have to play in the raucous Garden environment again for a must-win game not to fall 3-1 to the Knicks. It will be a tall task as it appears Brunson and Thibodeau have figured out the Cavs' defensive schemes. The Cavs bench, a severe weakness I pointed out before the series started, has proved true as Cavs coach J. B. Bickerstaff has had to employ three zombies in Ricky Rubio, Danny Green, and Robin Lopez in Game Three to give them a spark. All three failed mightily, scoring a combined four points between the three.
The series has been to the Knicks' advantage, with the entire team struggling to shoot, especially from three. But the Cavs have yet to have to deal with the full force of Julius Randle, the Knicks' best scorer, and most dominant player. Randle has been pedestrian. He didn't make a ton of bad decisions in Game Three, but he hasn’t looked engaged, nor has he dominated clear mismatches when they’ve appeared. If we get the full Randle experience Sunday, the Cavs will have no shot with Brunson delivering closing masterpieces in crunch time and Barrett looking to have woken up finally.
This one will be a physical, close nail-biter. But in the end, the Knicks pull it out at home thanks to The Garden faithful giving sixth-man vibes—Knicks by single digits.