On a Wednesday night in Cleveland, Knick players embraced at the final buzzer. Because, for the first time in ten years, the New York Knicks have advanced to the Eastern Conference semis. It was a stunning series for the Knicks, many prognosticators wrote them off beforehand, but true to my playoff prediction, I believed the Knicks would come out on top, and so it proved. I felt beforehand the Knicks had the depth advantage, the physicality, and the rebounding advantage to take the Cavs off their rhythm. I also liked the coaching advantage, with Thibodeau’s experience over Bickerstaff having the edge- and so it proved. As the series progressed all those advantages shone through as some of the key reasons the Knicks beat the Cavs.
This is a huge achievement for the Knick organization. Leon Rose the Knick President received a lot of criticism for refusing to pay over the odds to land Donovan Mitchell in the summer. Yet as it turned out, many of those pieces- Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin, and RJ Barrett, all played a part in being the difference makers in the series. Especially, RJ Barrett.
Rose also deserves credit for sticking to his guns- believing in Tom Thibodeau’s coaching methods after missing the playoffs last year. Thibodeau repaid the faith with an excellent season.
Rose especially deserves credit for pulling the steal of the trade deadline by acquiring Josh Hart for Cam Reddish. Last but certainly not least, landing Jalen Brunson in free agency is the key reason the Knicks beat the Cavs. They are now on their way to facing off against Miami in the semis.
Let’s go through how the Knicks won the Cavs series handily.
KNICKS WIN!!! pic.twitter.com/kwYkLQS1Xm
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) April 27, 2023
5 Reasons the Knicks Beat the Cavs
The Knicks appeared to want it more
Something really noticeable about game 5 was the disparity in the energy each team had on the court. With the Knicks down two starters and Cleveland down 3-1 in the series, fighting for their playoff lives, it was Knicks players who were diving for loose balls. New York was out-hustling the opposition for offensive rebounds and second-chance opportunities.
Appearing the more united team, they relished the opportunity while the Cavs appeared to shirk away from it. The Knicks also owned the backboards in the series—in game 5 alone, they had 17 offensive rebounds while Cleveland had just 4.
They played with toughness and cohesiveness on the defensive end, personified by Josh Hart. Mitchell Robinson dominated on the glass, and Jalen Brunson was the offensive star on the court by a distance. It wasn’t just about Brunson, however, the series was a team effort, and everyone in the rotation played extremely well.
Thibodeau made all the right calls. He wasn’t married to rotations. For instance, with Randle struggling with injury (and later re-aggravating it), along with Grimes missing the final few games, Thibs made use of his role players. And they stepped up big time, rewarding their coach. Namely, Hart and Toppin filled the Randle void, and the Knicks centers pressed home their size advantage.
Thibs had his team extremely prepared and committed. The Cavs by comparison looked slightly overawed and mismatched with the physicality the Knicks showed.
I also felt it came down to defense—the Knicks held Cleveland to a record low 79 points in Game 3—setting the tone for the series. Thibs did not allow Donovan Mitchell any opportunity to dominate, by matching Hart and Quickley on him.
Finally, Bickerstaff made some mistakes trying to have Cedi Osman defend Jalen Brunson at times, and no matter who they put on Brunson they were unable to stop him- which was a key difference in the series.
A very good series overall for Thibodeau.
The Knicks Depth shone
Going into this series, the Knicks had one of the strongest bench units in the NBA. Cleveland on the other hand, was far more top-heavy in terms of star talent. This was a key component in this series, as the Knicks took advantage of an abundance of depth. Starting with Josh Hart who had a marvelous series: 12 rebounds in game 5, along with lockdown defense on Donovan Mitchell in 46 minutes. He found ways to impact the game most of the series: 17 points, and 10 boards in game 1, with 19, and 7 in game 4. Not to mention, supreme hustle in transition and perimeter defense. There’s a reason the Knicks are 21-7 with Josh Hart. He’s an X-factor, and the Cavs couldn’t deal with him.
RJ Barrett had a huge final three games of the series. Scoring 66 points in the final 3 games of the series along with 14 boards and 8 assists, he put on a show.
Obi Toppin, with Julius Randle injured, was productive with 12 points off the bench in game 5. Immanuel Quickley, unlucky not to win the league’s 6th man of the year, popped up with 19 points in game 5 respectively.
In Isiah Hartenstein, the Cavs couldn’t deal with his size, rebounding, and rim protection. Off the bench, Hartenstein provided 2 blocks and 2 steals in game four and dished out 5 assists in game 2 of the series.
The Knicks bench outscored Cleveland’s 37 to 14 in Game 1, and 32-19 in Game 5, speaking to the depth advantage that the Knicks had on Cleveland. They tried to alternate Caris LeVert or Cedi Osman to beef up the bench, but in the end, they didn’t have nearly the options to trouble the Knicks over the series.
The Knicks Bigs utterly dominated the Cavs bigs
This was by far the biggest mismatch and one of the key reasons the Knicks beat the Cavs. Much of this series was won on the glass. Mitchell Robinson was imperious on the glass. Josh Hart proving why he is the best rebounding guard in the NBA. Frankly, both Mitch Robinson and Hartenstein embarrassed All-Star Jarrett Allen. Furthermore, Defensive Player of the Year candidate Evan Mobley couldn’t handle Julius Randle’s strength in one on one matchups, and didn’t want any part of the physicality that Robinson provided in the paint.
The numbers were striking—a 20-3 advantage for the Knicks in second-chance points in game 5. New York also had a 48-30 rebounding edge overall in that game.
Game 1 there was a 51- 30 rebounding edge. In each of the Knicks wins in the series, they had a decisive rebounding and shot-blocking advantage.
This dominance was headlined by a monstrous series from Mitchell Robinson: Providing 13 points, 18 rebounds, 1 assist, 3 blocks, and two steals to close out the game 5 victory. Over the series, Robinson averaged around 10 boards and over 2 blocks per game. A key reason the Knicks beat the Cavs.
Brunson outshone and outclassed Donovan Mitchell
The final key reason the Knicks beat the Cavs, and another striking difference, was the way Jalen Brunson thrived and dominated and Donovan Mitchell looked completely lost in this series.
Brunson was quite dazzling in this series. He has spectacular footwork which is one of the best in the NBA. He’s able to create space he has no business finding, no matter who guards him. Not blessed with the athleticism, size, or speed that other stars have; he instead beats you with his dazzling footwork, strength, and determination. Couple that with an ability to score inside or outside with ease. Especially, in the paint, he weaves and ducks and dives, scoring quite incredible buckets. Over the 5 games, Brunson averaged 24 points per game, 4 boards, and 4.8 assists.
Donovan Mitchell on the other hand, had 15 turnovers in the final 3 games of the series and was 5 of 24 from 3 and just 39% from the field. He looked like he couldn’t handle the lockdown defense of Hart and Quickley especially. At times he appeared visibly frustrated, forced possessions, and looked bereft of confidence.
Meanwhile, Jalen Brunson cooked the Cavs guards and led his Knicks to a historic gentleman’s sweep of the heavily favored Cavs.
ON TO ROUND 2 ⏩ pic.twitter.com/m2QneBuS10
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) April 27, 2023
These indomitable Knicks have a classic semi-final matchup similar to their 90s epic playoff battles against their fierce rivals, the Miami Heat. Jimmy Butler managed to unseat the title-contending Bucks in amazing fashion. It promises to be a classic matchup.
Who can bet against this Knicks team? It’s been a special team all year- and to quote head-coach Tom Thibodeau: “The way this team plays resonates with the fans… they play hard, smart and together. We’re looking forward to the next challenge.” With the way the Knicks dismantled the star-studded Cavs, no one wants to face this Knicks team moving forward, and they stand a chance to unseat their Miami rivals in this current form.