Last season, the New York Knicks dominated the Cleveland Cavaliers. New York won the combined regular season and postseason series 7-2 against Cleveland. The Cavaliers might be the closest Tier 2 team to challenging the Tier 1 teams, but New York is nipping at Cleveland’s heels. This season, the Cavaliers need a reversal of fortune against the Knicks in order to hold onto their spot as the perennial challenger to teams such as the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics.
In the final regular season meeting between the Knicks and Cavaliers, New York came away with the 130-116 win and secured the 3-1 series win for NY. Knicks guard Jalen Brunson led everyone in scoring with 48 points. Then, in four of the five playoff games, Brunson was the leading scorer for the Knicks: he dropped 27 points in Game 1, 21 in Game 3, 29 in Game 4, and 23 in Game 5. Donovan Mitchell was the leading scorer for the Cavaliers in the last regular season game against the Knicks with 42 points and in the playoffs, Mitchell was the Cavs leading scorer in three of the five games: 38 points in Game 1, 22 in Game 3, and 28 in Game 5.
Going by last season’s series, Bruson and Mitchell essentially cancel each other out. That means it’s up to the role players to take some of the weight off their stars. As the series wore on, New York’s role players stepped up and found ways to make plays. In Game 4 at Madison Square Garden, a game in which the Knicks won 102-93, RJ Barrett broke out of his scoring slump and posted 26 points, Josh Hart (who I wanted the Cavaliers to trade for) put up 19 points, and Mitchell Robinson contributed 12 points and 11 rebounds, giving him a double-double. New York’s three leading scorers combined for 74 points, while Cleveland’s three scorers totaled 51 points. That’s a difference of 23, which is a huge discrepancy in the NBA.
One big question hasn’t escaped my mind since the final buzzer sounded at the end of Game 5 back on April 26: Why didn’t Lamar Stevens, who is now with the Boston Celtics, get more playing time against the Knicks? He could’ve played a similar role for the Cavaliers as the one Josh Hart played for the Knicks. Stevens’ defense could’ve bothered Brunson and he could’ve given the Cavs a little bit of offense.
Josh Hart made a huge difference for the Knicks last season and he was a key reason why New York eliminated Cleveland in the playoffs. He had 19 points in Game 1, 13 in Game 3, and 19 in Game 4. While he made an impact on the score sheet throughout the series, he also made key plays that didn’t show up on the box score like switching onto Garland or Mitchell, trapping pick-and-rolls, and cutting to the basket in order to get teammates open. Isaac Okoro was supposed to take on that role for the Cavaliers, but it hasn’t panned out that way so far for the Cavs. In the series, Stevens played a combined eight minutes in Games 3 and 5. A few of Cleveland’s key wing options either didn’t play or didn’t perform.
The biggest problem the Cavaliers had against the Knicks last season, especially in the playoffs, was that the Knicks closed off the paint. New York forced Garland and Mitchell to give the ball up and make guys like Evan Mobley, Isaac Okoro, and Cedi Osman beat them. That strategy proved fruitful for New York because Mobley, Okoro, Osman, and the bench couldn’t get it done. When Garland and Mitchell kicked it out for a three-pointer to make New York’s defense pay, the others couldn’t deliver. The Cavs shot 32.6% from 3-point range over the entire series. It became clear that the Cavaliers need reliable shooters to capitalize on their dynamic duo.
The Cavaliers recognized how big of a problem spacing was against the Knicks, so what did they do over the offseason? They went out and added shooters to open the lane for Garland, Mitchell, and Mobley. Cleveland added Max Strus, who was a vital part of the Miami Heat’s playoff success over the past few seasons, Ty Jerome, who made some big shots during Virginia’s run to the national championship back in 2019, and Georges Niang, who can also hit clutch shots.
Cleveland knows that in order to beat the Knicks and the other top teams across the league, their success starts with Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell. But their success is also going to be contingent on Evan Mobley taking that next step this season because he’s going to be facing guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum, Julius Randle, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Karl-Anthony Towns, and other frontcourt stars. In order for Mobley to take that next step everyone believes he can, the supporting cast has to give him the room to operate.
A lot hinges on the improved play of the Cavaliers supporting cast. Cleveland generally knows what they’re going to get from Garland, Mitchell, and Mobley on a given night, but they don’t know what the others are going to add. The supporting cast can elevate the core to home court advantage in the playoffs, or cause them to flame out early again this year. Given the state of disarray in the Philadelphia 76ers organization, the Cavs have an opportunity to grab the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference this season. The Knicks are hoping to take the Cavaliers’ place as the team most likely to sneak up on the contenders.
The Cavaliers will face the Knicks three times this season, two of which will be at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse (RMFH). Both meetings between the Knicks and Cavaliers at RMFH will be broadcast on national television. The game on Halloween will be on TNT, and then the game on March 3 will be on ESPN. The league knows how big these matchups are; it’s almost like they should be playing each other on Christmas.
Last season, New York dominated Cleveland as the Knicks went 7-2 against the Cavaliers. This season, the Cavaliers need a reverse in fortune against the Knicks in order to reach their ultimate goal.