The Cleveland Cavaliers’ first adjustment came three minutes into Game 2 in their first round series versus the New York Knicks when head coach J.B. Bickerstaff yanked Isaac Okoro to the bench following his two fouls and two turnovers. Cedi Osman was summoned and took the assignment of defending Jalen Brunson.
In the first quarter, Osman’s length and the Cavaliers switching defenders bothered JB into an ineffective three out of 11 makes. Cleveland also sent blitzes on the perimeter at him when turning the corner of a screen to force the rock to another Knick. New York’s ball movement didn’t hurt the Cavs because defenders closed out well to the pass and didn’t allow clean looks from 3-point range.
Eight of New York’s early 22 points were generated by Brunson getting downhill or teammates finding an open man with a hit-ahead pass. The Cavaliers, as a result, were playing much quicker than their season average but were successful in containing the visitors to 88-points in offensive rating. Keep in mind the league average for the stat is 114.8.
On this occasion, Darius Garland took command of the attack. With Jarrett Allen’s screen on Mitchell Robinson at the top of the key, DG found an opening in the drop coverage for a triple. Next, multiple Knicks were sucked into the paint, but two swift passes found #10 unbothered on the wing for three points, like a marksman firing away in a watchtower.
At the end of the period, Garland was struck with the inevitable hit to the head by an opponent. Obi Toppin inadvertently elbowed him in the jaw when getting caught on a back screen. The refs rewarded Garland with free throws, where he made one out of two. Before the quarter wrapped up, he attempted six freebies, dropping five, when his average for the season is 4.7 tries a game.
In the second frame, Cleveland’s ball pressure on drives and restricted passing lanes forced nine turnovers, six being steals. The hosts capitalized by scoring 19 points off premature possession changes and taking seven more attempts in the period.
After the scoreboard read 25-22 in favor of Cleveland through 12 minutes, the hosts erupted by doubling New York’s point production (34-17), and this was the driving force to their W.
Donovan Mitchell had six dimes while masterfully orchestrating the offensive avalanche, and eventually would have 13 assists in the outing. He absorbed multiple defenders on rim runs, finding open teammates cutting through the center and baseline or down the court on the break.
At halftime, the Cavaliers led by 20 points but, most impressively, had made 13 out of 15 free throws because New York couldn’t guard without illegal contact.
In the last pair of quarters, Cleveland slowed the match down 13.2 points below the average pace. This chopped precious seconds away from the clock, limiting New York’s opportunities to find its rhythm.
To contain dribble penetration, the Knicks sagged off the weak side to close the paint. When Garland found Caris LeVert alone on the right corner, Brunson recklessly closed out as #3 maneuvered to the mid-post for a 15-foot jumper.
In the second half, LeVert was the leading producer with 13 points on five out of seven tries. In single coverage, he beat Brunson at the point of attack twice, made an open corner triple, plus a coast-to-coast layup over Immanuel Quickley.
The Cavaliers entered the fourth quarter with a 22-point advantage. With half the interval left, head coach Tom Thibodeau subbed out Josh Hart when he should have emptied his bench because of the main rotation’s powerlessness to guard. Brunson was at the line, so he would have needed to come out later.
Julius Randle and Brunson didn’t sit until two minutes left in the game, and New York was down 20 points. It’s as if Thibodeau hasn’t learned his lesson from 11 years ago when he kept Derrick Rose in an already-decided game that injured his star and wiped out the Bulls’ title hopes.
The Cavaliers evened the series at 1-1 and now head over to New York for Games 3 and 4.
At the postgame presser, J.B. Bickerstaff praised his unit’s defensive execution.
“What they did defensively tonight was phenomenal,” Bickerstaff said. “The way they competed on that end of the floor. The way they scrapped every possession. That’s a phenomenal effort by our group.”
As he answered questions, Bickerstaff reflected on Cleveland’s abysmal work on the glass in Game 1, and emphasized how this group rebounded from that in a big way Tuesday night. He said, “We got our a** kicked on the boards the other night and tonight [the Cavaliers] took it personal.”