Through five games, the Cleveland Cavaliers have yet to play with all five starters available, an aspect that has sorely affected their cohesion to begin the regular season.
After sliding to a 1-3 record to begin their 2023-24 campaign, the Cavaliers fought to the end and secured a 95-89 win on the second night of their second back-to-back in the early season. In the midst of a blooming rivalry, Cleveland versed the New York Knicks. Both games of this miniseries back-to-back were against their Big Apple opponent.
Losing at home on Tuesday night, the Cavs entered Madison Square Garden for the second matchup and displayed a drastically better game plan and tenacity from the night prior. It was far from a pretty win, though, as neither team reached 100 points or shot 50 percent from the field. It came down to hustle plays and selfless decision-making.
This time, the Cavaliers were the team that found the window to success over New York. After losing by 18 at home, Cleveland refused to surrender to the Knicks. Through the first half, it was a back-and-forth contest as both teams constantly seized momentum from the other before either team could find any rhythm.
Placing Georges Niang in the starting lineup over Dean Wade, Cleveland employed their fourth starting five in almost just as many games. While the lack of consistency in availability and lineups has stunted the Cavaliers’ efficiency quite often so far this year, they began to find themselves in the third quarter and ground out a gritty win.
Niang embraced the sudden role change, securing a team-high 10 rebounds and took on tough assignments on defense throughout the night. His efforts were recognized and rewarded, earning the Minivan his first ever Junkyard Dog chain of his Cleveland basketball career.
Without Darius Garland by his side, Donovan Mitchell hoisted the Cavaliers onto his shoulders and unleashed an unrelenting barrage of two-way attacks. Mitchell scored the first 13 points for Cleveland, pairing it with numerous clutch defensive stops. The All-NBA guard drained his first five 3-point attempts and seemed locked in from the jump.
His teammates, on the other hand, started slow offensively but held their own on the other end of the court. The Cavaliers started to get their feet beneath them once 2016 NBA Champion Tristan Thompson entered the game and swiftly found a pair of post shots at the bottom of the basket. In the playoffs against the Knicks, the Cavaliers fell in five games as the higher seed, and a lack of rebounding intensity played a disastrous role in that series. Thompson has instantly improved the Cavaliers’ presence on the boards, forcing the Knicks to work for every rebound they got whenever he entered the game.
Tristan Thompson was the last offseason free agent signing for the Cavaliers, returning to the city that drafted him fourth overall in 2011 and became his home in the NBA. Thompson served as an on-court leader through his action and determination, proving his dedication to Cleveland basketball has never ceased since his departure in 2020. As a young developing team, Thompson’s leadership is proving to be invaluable already.
The combined efforts of Mitchell and Thompson propelled the Cavaliers to a close lead before the bench unit took the reigns. In the second unit, undrafted rookie Craig Porter, Jr. assumed the role of offensive coordinator, pushing the tempo and finding crafty ways to score in the lane, swerving past New York’s best interior defenders.
The entire Cavaliers roster rebounded from a poor performance in the first game against the Knicks, and Evan Mobley especially embodied that shift in energy. Mobley scored 14 critical points for Cleveland and tied the team-high assists with five, finding the open shooter and cutter both in half-court and transition offense. Mobley has yet to break out as an unstoppable post scorer and struggles from the mid-range, but his play in game five would be best described as multi-faceted. Mobley stuffed the stat sheet, adding 8 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks to his points and assists.
After missing the first game with a hamstring strain, veteran swingman Caris LeVert emerged as a crucial player against the Knicks, filling the wing rotation alongside Isaac Okoro and Max Strus, two players who equally impacted the competitive win.
Following the win, head coach J.B. Bickerstaff praised Okoro’s defensive efforts specifically. Per usual, Okoro’s defensive assignment was the opponent’s best backcourt scorer. Okoro held New York’s franchise guard Jalen Brunson to 8-of-23 (34.7 percent) shooting. While Okoro only scored 2 points, he was nonetheless instrumental in forcing the Knicks into contested shots every time down the court.
The Cavaliers seem to have learned from their disappointing first four outings. The challenge will now be maintaining that energy rather than saving it as a response to a beatdown. As much as the injuries have hurt Cleveland to begin the regular season, it is little excuse to fall short game after game. Their latest win suggests the Cavaliers know this, and they will need to prove this going forward.
After an exhausting stint to begin their season with five games in eight days, the Cleveland Cavaliers will have time to recoup their starting lineup’s health and hopefully implement their primary gameplan before their Friday road trip matchup against the Indiana Pacers to begin the group stage of the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament.