After two fairly non-competitive Game 1s to open the first round in Boston and Philadelphia, the Knicks and Cavs delivered our first thriller of this postseason in Cleveland.
It was not a showcase of high-flying offenses, but an extremely physical, defensive battle befitting the matchup. It also was apparent that these were two teams filled with players that were either making their playoff debuts or battling playoff demons of the past, as there appeared to be a lot of nerves on both sides. Naturally, the two teams turned to their star guards who have had playoff success elsewhere to lead them, and Jalen Brunson and Donovan Mitchell were happy to oblige.
After Brunson dealt with early foul trouble that limited his first half minutes, he came alive in the second half to score 27 points in what became a 101-97 Knicks win. Seemingly every time the Knicks needed a bucket, Brunson was able to create one for himself, as he took over with some incredible shot-making in the second half.
On the other side, it was Mitchell, who led all scorers with 38 points to go along with eight assists, as he did just about everything for the Cleveland offense all night long.
In the fourth quarter, it was his heroics that dragged the Cavs from 10 down all the way back into the lead on a Jarrett Allen tip-in of a Mitchell miss.
However, while Brunson was sensational, the difference in the game was the Knicks’ “others,” headlined by Josh Hart who had 17 points (8-of-10 shooting) and 10 rebounds in his playoff debut. Obi Toppin (9 points) and Isaiah Hartenstein (8 points, 5 rebounds) also gave a boost off of the bench, as New York’s reserves outscored Cleveland’s 37-14 on the evening. Down the stretch both Hart and Hartenstein came up with big plays, as Hart hit a couple huge buckets to provide needed support to Brunson, and Hartenstein had a crucial tip-out to help the Knicks push the lead back out to two possessions.
It was a gritty, scrappy game, with the Knicks just managing to make more of those winning plays down the stretch. They got Brunson’s scoring, Hart’s rebounding and timely shooting, Hartenstein’s defense and rebounding, and even Julius Randle attacking the offensive glass on the final possession, even as he struggled with his scoring after a hot start. Those kinds of plays were the difference in taking down a Cavs team that just couldn’t create enough on offense outside of Mitchell’s individual brilliance.
The Knicks seemed willing to cede a big scoring night to Mitchell if it meant the rest of the team was out of rhythm. Allen finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds, but went through spells of disappearing in terms of impact. Garland had 17 points and four steals, but was held to just one assist with five turnovers as he struggled a bit with the Knicks’ ball pressure and finding ways to create for his teammates. Evan Mobley had just eight points with 11 rebounds, and the bench had their aforementioned struggles to make an impact.
Moving forward, it’ll be interesting to watch how both teams adjust. The margins in Game 1 were slim, but New York’s performance felt a bit stronger overall. The Knicks will need improvement from Randle and RJ Barrett offensively, who combined to go 9-of-32 from the field, as well as Immanuel Quickley (3 points on 0-of-5 shooting in 24 minutes off the bench) to help alleviate the stress placed on Brunson to create everything offensively. However, the way they performed on the glass (17 offensive rebounds), got positive impact from their bench, and frustrated the non-Mitchell Cavs defensively will all go in the positives category alongside Brunson’s spectacular play.
For Cleveland, they’ll want their frontcourt tandem to make big strides in Game 2 in terms of meeting the Knicks’ physicality. Mobley and Allen can’t let Mitchell Robinson, Randle, and Hartenstein frustrate them as they seemed to on the offensive end and on the glass. The lack of offensive impact in the frontcourt also makes their biggest weakness, the small forward spot, an even more glaring issue in this series. Isaac Okoro started the game and gives them the best defensive presence, but the Knicks happily ignored him stationed in the corner and sent help at Mitchell and Garland. Cedi Osman helped open up the floor more for Mitchell offensively, demanding at least a bit more attention as a spot-up shooter, but struggled as the on-ball defender for Brunson in the fourth. Getting more out of their frontcourt (and by proxy, seeing Garland, in particular, be better creating for them) would likely mean they can play their better defensive lineups to try and corral Brunson better.
Even with all of that, they were still just four points shy of a win in Game 1. There’s plenty to work on, but Mitchell’s individual brilliance gives them a chance even on off nights. If they can just get back to playing more like their regular season selves, they can unquestionably get themselves back into this series very quickly. Game 2 won’t be until Tuesday, allowing both teams two full off days to dive into film and address the various adjustments they each need to make, with what should be another very entertaining game on the way.