Knicks vs. Cavs Series Preview - Part 1
It's almost here, folks!
The 2023 NBA playoffs kick off this weekend, and the Knicks are invited to the dance, with New York heading to Cleveland to take on the Cavs in Game 1 on Saturday.
I'll break the series preview into two parts (as it will sum to 5,000+ words in total). In today's segment, I'll examine the point guard, shooting guard and small forward matchups.
Tomorrow I'll break down the power forward/center positions as well as each team's bench. And I'll wrap it up by giving my prediction on who will win the series.
Let's dig in, shall we…
Jalen Brunson vs. Darius Garland
It's impossible to overstate the impact Brunson has had on the Knicks. Yes, his numbers are jaw-dropping; he averaged 24.0 points (shooting above 49% from the floor), 6.2 assists (vs. just 2.2 turnovers) and 2.0 made three-pointers (converting 41.6% of his 3PT attempts). In the process, he became the first and only player in NBA history to average at least 24 points, six dimes and two treys while also committing fewer than 2.5 turnovers a night. But those counting stats and sparking efficiency only tell part of the story. The leadership Brunson has provided, both on the court and in the locker room, since he set foot in NYC has changed the tenor and direction of the entire franchise.
Several Knicks have exceeded expectations this season, but Jalen Brunson is undoubtedly the person most directly responsible for the transformation from a 37-win club in 2021-22 to a 47-win team in 202-23. (If you are wondering precisely how valuable Jalen Brunson is, ask the Dallas Mavericks.)
And one of the reasons New York was willing to pony up $100+ million for Brunson last summer was due to his otherworldly performance in last season's playoffs, partially in the first round when he torched Donovan Mitchell's Utah Jazz.
Here are the final stats for both Brunson and Mitchell in that series:
27.8 points per game,
4.2 assists (vs. just 0.8 turnovers),
53.2% effective FG%
25.5 points per game,
5.7 assists (vs. 2.7 turnovers),
43.6% effective FG%
Remarkably, Brunson led all players in total points scored in the first round of the 2022 playoffs, ahead of both Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic. Dating back to his days at Villanova, JB has played his best ball when the lights shine the brightest.
Obviously, Brunson's brilliance is not news to Cleveland, as he poured in a career-high 48 points in a win over the Cavs two weeks ago. Expect Cleveland to attempt to cut off the head of the snake. Speaking with reporters this past weekend, Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff said: "The game that Jalen Brunson had put us on high alert. I think that's a good thing for us. To have that appropriate fear of your opponent. We'll use it, we'll watch the film, we'll figure it out, and we'll be better."
Yet, make no mistake, Cleveland has an uber-talented point guard of their own, as Darius Garland has been awesome for the Cavs all year as well. At just 23 years of age, Garland (who was selected two spots after RJ Barrett in the 2019 draft) averaged 21.6 points, 7.8 assists (7th highest APG in the league), 2.7 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 2.4 made three-balls while shooting a career-best 41% from behind the arc. He finished the season 7th in plus/minus this season (+441), one spot behind Jayson Tatum and one spot ahead of Joel Embiid.
Garland was the only player in the league this season to average more than 20 points and more than seven dimes while shooting above 40% from deep. Against Minnesota on Nov. 13, he became just the sixth player in NBA history to tally 50+ PTS, 10+ 3-pointers and 5+ AST in a single game.
It's important to note these two likely won't be matched up directly with each other all that often, as the Knicks will likely try to hide Brunson on Isaac Okoro (assuming he's healthy) while Okoro will be tasked with slowing down JB on the other end (more on this in a bit).
🏀 Shooting Guard:
Quentin Grimes vs. Donovan Mitchell
If the name rings a bell, it's because the Knicks were interested in trading for the Mitchell guy, as you may have heard about last summer.
And, yes, Cleveland trumping the Knicks' best offer for Mitchell just as it appeared New York was going to bring him to the Garden makes the subplots and storylines in this series almost too tasty to believe.
And although the Cavs gave up a ton to acquire him (trading away Lauri Markkanen, Ochai Agbaji, Collin Sexton, three unprotected first-round picks [2025, 2027 and 2029] and two pick swaps), they have to be extremely happy with the return on their investment thus far. Just as Brunson was a primary driver of the Knicks improved record, Mitchell was the most significant factor in Cleveland jumping from 44 wins in 2021-22 to 51 this season (the fifth most in the NBA). He averaged career-highs in scoring (28.3 PPG), three-pointers (3.6), and steals (1.5) while posting career-best marks in FG, 3Pt and FT percentage. He also committed career-low 2.6 turnovers per game.
Mitchell scored 40+ points 13 times, which is the second-most 40-point games all-time for an NBA player's first season with a new team, behind only Wilt Chamberlain (32 such games in his first season with Philly).
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