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Knicks 102, Cavaliers 93: “Smokin’ that Cleveland pack”

The good times keep on rolling as the Knicks go up 3-1

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at New York Knicks Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Did you know kingsnakes are immune to snake venom? A useful little adaptation if you live in an area where there’s not a lot of life to feed on — don’t wanna limit your options. Since venom can’t hurt them, kingsnakes are free to hunt other snakes like rattlesnakes and cottonmouths, prey that doesn’t invite many other predators. We do what it takes to survive, and live in hope.

Did you know among the NBA’s automatic playoff teams this season (the top-6 in each conference), only three featured players as young and prominent as RJ Barrett? Evan Mobley, Tyrese Maxey and Keegan Murray: that’s it. It’s good to remember most winning teams aren’t counting on someone just barely old enough to drink to be a swing factor for their postseason success. Even better is seeing the Knicks winning a playoff game thanks in large part to the largesse of Barrett, their baby-faced pendulum.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and early on it was evident both were in the building. Julius Randle continued to struggle, partly because he’s being covered by an All-NBA defender in Mobley and partly/relatedly because Randle still looks to be working off the blueprint that served him so well in the regular season, a blueprint Mobley is familiar with, too. Randle’s leap came from him changing his shot profile to be almost exclusively 3-pointers and shots in the paint. You may remember James Harden did that for years, and that playoff success and he remain distant.

Randle may need to go backwards to move forward. At this stage in the series, Mobley is expecting Randle to put up stepback and/or side-step 3s, and he’s contesting many of them. If Randle puts the ball on the floor, Mobley knows his intent is to dribble up to or into the paint; there’s a whole section of midrange where he knows no shot is coming. What an advantage for a defender who already possesses so many. On one sequence Randle faked a 3, took a dribble or two inside the arc and drained a long 2. The new gods frown on “settling” like that, but the old heads remember when players who were slumping from deep used to do that to get themselves going. It didn’t lead to a Randle revival, but maybe between that and another tough midrange jumper he made in the second half he’ll start to see the light leading out of his cold snap.

Meanwhile, after the Knicks went up double-digits in the second, the Cavaliers roared back behind their All-Star scorer/creator combo guard — no, not Donovan Mitchell, the other All-Star scorer/creator combo guard. Darius Garland looked “shook” in Game 3, according to Mitchell Robinson, but this time around Garland went from shook to cook, serving up a buffet of backdoor cuts and long-range licks.

The spry and sassy guard looked like Madison Square Garden was his personal playground in the third quarter, a frame the Cavs dominated, cutting a nine-point gap at the half to two entering the fourth. Their offense was really clicking. Or at least, it seemed that way.

After seven quarters of playoff basketball in New York, Cleveland’s high-water mark was the third quarter in this game. They scored 26. That’s how good the Knick defense has been this weekend: a 26-point quarter felt like an explosion. They entered the final frame up by a point. Tom Thibodeau decided to sit Randle the whole 12 minutes. How would that work?

It worked! Early in the quarter, Barrett drew Mobley’s fifth foul on an and-one that put New York up three. On their next possession, he took Cedi Osman off the dribble to add to the advantage. 26 points, 13 free throw attempts and 9 of 12 shooting inside the arc for Rowan the Second.

Quentin Grimes was out with a shoulder contusion, but Josh Hart, true to his Josh Hartness, plugged right in and defended Mitchell as well as one can: Stephen A’s white whale didn’t make a shot in the second half until there were a little over two minutes left and his team was down nine. Hart outscored Mitchell 19-11 on two fewer shot attempts.

Let us never grow accustomed to Jalen Brunson’s majesty, lest we take it for granted. It’s not often a player puts up 29/6/6 on 50% shooting, including five 3s, and isn’t the featured story. So let’s give him some props, like when he hit the nail-in-the-coffin shot to put New York up 10 in the last two minutes.

The series is not over. Nothing is harder than closing out a comparable opponent on the road, especially one whose season’s epitaph will be completely re-written if they lose in five games in a series where they had the homecourt advantage (we know what that’s like around here). A Cleveland win Wednesday in Ohio would build their confidence and put some pressure on the Knicks to close it out Friday in New York or risk going back on the road and facing a historic collapse; teams up 3-1 don’t usually let up.

But there are reasons for hope, even beyond all that I mentioned. Check out the minutes player for the Cav starters: 42 for Mitchell, 40 for Jarrett Allen, 39 for Caris LeVert, 36 for Garland and 35 for Mobley. Now bear in mind Mobley fouled out and Garland had four fouls — if they could have played more, J.B. Bickerstaff would have played them more. In a series where the Knicks have mostly been on top and played from ahead, the Cavaliers’ head coach trying to play his starting five as close to 48 minutes as possible looks like someone who doesn’t have much in the way of a Plan B or C.

That can happen to teams that trade a lotta pieces for top-tier talent. Lauri Markkanen and Collin Sexton aren’t at the level Donovan Mitchell is — hell, neither is 2023 Kevin Love — but there’s a dearth of depth with the Cavs. The Knicks can bring any number of players into a game and trust them to have a positive impact. There is no one coming off the Cleveland bench right now doing anything beyond giving some starter the briefest of breaks.

Quoth foiegrastyle: “Smokin’ that Cleveland pack lol.” Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, sure, though the Knicks don’t have ‘em just quite yet. Tune in Wednesday to find out if the Knicks’ next game is Game 6 with a chance to advance or maybe hosting Game 1 of the second round against Miami. Either way, we live in hope.