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2023 Eastern Conference First-Round Preview: New York Knicks vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

NBA Knicks Cavaliers
(AP Photo/John Munson)

2023 Eastern Conference First-Round Preview: New York Knicks vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

The 2022-23 NBA Playoffs are here! In the 4/5 matchup in the Eastern Conference, we have the No. 5-seeded New York Knicks slated against the No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers, in what’s expected to be one of the best head-to-head matchups the first round.

The Knicks took three of the four games this season, including a 130-116 win on March 31 behind a dominant 48-point, nine-assist performance from Jalen Brunson on 18-of-32 shooting with seven 3-pointers. Let’s not spoil too much of what might entail in this matchup in the introduction — so let’s jump into it!

Here is the series schedule:

GAMEDATEMATCHUPTIME (ET)TV
Game 1Saturday, April 15New York @ Cleveland6:00 p.m.ESPN
Game 2Tuesday, April 18New York @ Cleveland7:30 p.m.TNT
Game 3Friday, April 21Cleveland @ New York8:30 p.m.ABC
Game 4Sunday, April 23Cleveland @ New York1:00 p.m.ABC
Game 5*Wednesday, April 26New York @ ClevelandTBDTBD
Game 6*Friday, April 28Cleveland @ New YorkTBDTBD
Game 7*Sunday, April 30New York @ ClevelandTBDTBD

What to know about the New York Knicks:

Notable starters:

Reserves:

The Knicks, like the Cavaliers, surpassed their preseason expectations after missing the play-in game a year ago. Jalen Brunson ended up being a bargain, Julius Randle re-kindled his 2020-21 self while Immanuel Quickley continued rising into one of the most impactful sixth men in the NBA. The Knicks finished with the league’s fourth-most efficient offense and the No. 19 best defense, including the ninth-best since the turn of the calendar. They have a cohesive starting five, a formidable bench — spearheaded by Quickley — and a more diversified offense than it did two years ago, when it got bounced by the Hawks in five games.

Tom Thibodeau’s squads are always going to grind teams out, and this Knicks squad is a perfect representation of that. Can they amend their playoff woes from 2020-21, even without a healthy Randle, who’s dealt with an ankle injury since the end of March? Only time will tell.

What to know about the Cleveland Cavaliers:

Notable starters:

Reserves:

The Cavaliers were one of the NBA’s bigger surprise stories of the season. After getting bounced in the play-in game a year ago, they traded for Donovan Mitchell — a New York native — and while they were quiet at the NBA Trade Deadline, they maintained their top-4 seed in the East. Cleveland finished 51-31 — their first 50-win season since going 50-32 in LeBron James’ last year in Cleveland (2017-18) — with the league’s second-best NET Rating (5.6). The Cavs were one of three squads with a top-10 offense and defense, finishing the season with the NBA’s top defense (109.9 DRTG) on the backs of Mobley, Allen and Okoro.

We know the teams with the best track record usually advance far in the playoffs, and the Cavs have plenty of it, though they’re surprisingly shaky on the glass. Regardless, Cleveland doesn’t operate at a fast pace, but they have a historically-dominant playoff scorer in Mitchell, a near-elite primary initiator in Garland, two Twin Towers in the lane in Mobley and Allen and a hyper-energetic glue guy in Okoro, among others. This team is dangerous and should be on every team’s radar, even if they’re a tier below Boston, Milwaukee and maybe even Philadelphia.

Questions?

1.) Will Julius Randle be healthy? And how could that swing the series?

There are plenty of questions surrounding Julius Randle’s health as I’m typing this. He injured his ankle two weeks ago in Miami and hasn’t played since.

It was reported Friday that Randle is intended to play Game 1, likely on a minutes restriction. The Knicks have, surprisingly, been better without Randle (plus-3.5 NET) than with him (2.6) on the floor, but that’s not directly representative of his impact, nor should it be indicative of what would occur over a seven-game series.

If he’s fully healthy, the Knicks clearly have the best chance against this towering Cavs frontcourt. It could be a long series — or short, rather — if he’s not, however.

2. Battle of the boards — who will end victorious?

O.K., enough discussion on injuries. Let’s talk about the actual basketball being played!

As I mentioned above, the Cavaliers are a below-average rebounding team. They ranked No. 17 in non-garbage time offensive rebounding percentage (26.5) and No. 20 in defensive rebounding percentage (72.9), per Cleaning The Glass.

The Knicks, meanwhile, were second in offensive rebounding percentage, rostering two players — Robinson and Hartenstein — who were in the top-7 in offensive rebounding percentage. The aforementioned pair were solid defensive rebounders, but both were more impactful on the offensive glass, affording New York extra possessions.

Cleveland ranked last in possessions, while New York logged the eighth-fewest. Both are fairly good at taking care of the rock, so the winner on the backboards could absolutely swing a game, or the series, even if it’s a marginal amount. Rebounding — like defense, which involves rebounding — wins games, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

3. Whose bench will be more valuable?

Both of these teams had two of the most impactful benches in basketball; the Cavs’ bench was No. 6 in NET Rating, while the Knicks’ bench, which has the potential sixth man of the year in Quickley, was No. 4.

In the playoffs, each rotation will be thinner with, generally, shorter leashes on players. That’s especially true for both Cleveland and New York, whose benches ranked in the bottom five in minutes leaguewide. We’re not going to see all-bench units for 5-10 minute spurts.

That said, as much as we fetishize the stars and their performances in postseason play (and rightfully so), role players No. 6, 7 and 8 oftentimes play integral parts in swinging a game and, occasionally, a series.

The Knicks have Quickley, who was a massive spark plug off the bench this season; Hartenstein and Toppin both found their footing as the year aged and Hart, who was acquired at the deadline, positively impacts a game anytime he’s on the floor with his rebounding, connective passing, defensive aptitude and hustle.

The Cavs, meanwhile, have LeVert, a flamethrower who’s an extra secondary creator, despite his decision-making being shaky at times. Stevens, a defensive-minded wing, has come into his own as a floor-spacer, while Rubio is a stabilizer and a rock solid table-setter offensively. Osman is a slight wildcard, but is ignitable from beyond the arc, at a minimum.

The series will be highlighted by Brunson, Mitchell, Garland, Randle (if he’s healthy) and others, but don’t be surprised if the benches display an impact at *some* point throughout.

Prediction: Cavaliers in 6

I just don’t know how healthy Randle will be. He’s not 100 percent, and I’m not sure how his ankle hinders his performance if it’s 70, 80 or 90 percent. All I know is New York needs him on the court in order to win four of seven, unless Brunson goes for nearly 50 every game, as he did on March 31. This should be a fun series either way, however.

***

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