2023 Playoffs: East First Round | Cavaliers (4) vs. Knicks (5)

Series preview: Cavs-Knicks series provides referendum on summer moves

Breaking down the Cleveland-New York matchup with 3 things to watch, 1 X-factor and a series prediction.

All eyes will be on Donovan Mitchell — and New York’s Jalen Brunson — in the first-round series.

Here go the Knicks and the Cavaliers, striding confidently into NBA spring, and all anyone wants to talk about is last summer.

That’s how it sounds, at least, as so much chatter focuses on Donovan Mitchell, the scoring star Cleveland traded for, and the guy New York eschewed. Even Mitchell, a New York native, seemed surprised that the Knicks opted out of talks with Utah, preferring not to part with young pieces and draft picks. The Knicks signed free-agent guard Jalen Brunson, nurtured along the likes of Immanuel Quickley, Quentin Grimes and others, picked up spark plug Josh Hart in February, and turned it all into the fifth seed in the East. They’re making their second postseason appearance in the past 10 years, which makes it hard to quibble with the results.

Cleveland showed no such hesitancy, though. It put together a hefty package to the Jazz’s liking to bring in precisely the sort of star it needed. Mitchell responded with the best of his five NBA seasons, averaging a career-high 28.3 points and making every other Cavalier a little better with his presence.

Now, for many, the outcome of this series will serve as a sort of referendum. If the Knicks prevail, they will have made the more prudent move. If the Cavaliers advance, they went big and avoid going home.

Regular Season Results 

Oct. 30: Cavaliers 121, Knicks 108
Dec. 4: Knicks 92, Cavaliers 81
Jan. 24: Knicks 105, Cavaliers 103
March 31: Knicks 130, Cavaliers 116

NBA TV previews the Knicks-Cavaliers first-round matchup.

3 Things To Watch

1. Mitchell vs. Brunson. As noted above, these are the two additions who elevated their teams into the playoffs. Each led his team in scoring during the four regular-season matchups, Mitchell putting up 31.8 points against New York (38 in the first meeting) while Brunson burned Cleveland for 25.3 points (48 in the most recent clash). The Knicks guard doesn’t dominate the ball quite as much as Mitchell, but he’ll be the one they look to late in clocks. For a reference point, when Dallas beat Utah in six games last spring in the West, Brunson averaged 27.8 points and shot 48.4% to Mitchell’s 25.5 on 39.8% shooting.

2. Cavs’ D vs. Knicks’ O. Which blinks first? In their four games vs. New York this season, the Cavaliers – who had the top-ranked defense this season at 109.9 points per 100 possessions – saw it slip to 112.7. Then again, the Knicks had a 117.0 offensive rating overall, compared to that 112.7 vs. Cleveland. The slow pace at which Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff likes to play might have a big say in this, but New York is capable – its coach is Tom Thibodeau, after all – of grinding gears in a half-court slog.

3. Where’s Danny? When the Cavaliers acquired veteran guard Danny Green in February, the idea was that his vast postseason resume would be as valuable as his flypaper defense and 3-point range at precisely this point on the calendar. It all still might happen, but Green has played only 71 minutes in seven appearances for Cleveland (14 DNPs) and this is the time of year rotations get tighter. It might not make or break the Cavaliers’ outlook but his involvement bears watching.


Julius Randle will be the center of attention — if he’s able to play at full strength after an ankle injury.

Until Julius Randle removes the “?” from his sprained left ankle, he gets the “X” here. Randle got hurt two weeks ago against Miami, has been hobbling in a walking boot and is due for a re-evaluation in the next few days. If he’s not able to compete or even is limited, he could be headed for a repeat of last spring when he launched 18.8 shots per game to average 18 points and shot 29.8% in the five-game elimination by Atlanta. Half-full Knicks fans will be looking for the two-time All-Star and possible All-NBA selection to test Cleveland’s Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen inside and out.

Number To Know

+5.6 — The Cavs were tied for the league’s fifth-best record, but had the second-best point differential, both on a per-100-possessions (+5.6) and per-game (+5.4) basis. They ranked higher than the Milwaukee Bucks (best record in the league) in both offensive and defensive efficiency and were one of three teams that ranked in the top 10 on both ends of the floor. Statistically, they were a much better team than their record would indicate.

The Cavs were 24-21 (10th best) in games that were within five points in the last five minutes, and 27-10 (second best) otherwise, leading the league with 33 double-digit wins. That was the league’s biggest such differential, and this was the second straight season where Cleveland wasn’t as good in close games as it was otherwise. The Cavs’ defense was solid in clutch situations, but they had the league’s 20th-ranked clutch offense, with Darius Garland (21-for-62, 33.9%) being one of seven players who shot worse than 35% on at least 50 clutch field goal attempts.

Julius Randle was one of the other six and the Knicks were also worse in clutch games (23-22) than they were otherwise (24-13). Three of the four regular-season meetings were within five points in the last five minutes, with the Knicks winning two of those three.

— John Schuhmann

The Pick

No Randle, no shot for New York. If he’s back and nearly 100%, this figures to be a long series. Both coaches preach defense, both have solid rim protection, and both have dynamic point guards driving their attacks. If Mitchell Robinson and Allen cancel each other out in the paint, the versatile Mobley might prove to be the difference, bothering the Knicks from various spots at both ends. The Cavaliers probably face a bit more pressure but they have home court to start and to finish. That should get it done. Cavaliers in 7.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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