The Eastern Conference’s fourth-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers and fifth-seeded New York Knicks meet in the first round of the 2023 NBA playoffs. The two franchises haven’t faced off in the postseason since 1996 — a best-of-five series in which, as luck would have it, the fifth-seeded Knicks swept the favored Cavs, 3-0.
More Yahoo Sports NBA first-round playoff previews:
How they got here
Cleveland Cavaliers (51-31)
By swinging one of the most ambitious trades of last offseason — and watching it pay immediate dividends.
The Cavs were one of the best stories of the first half of the 2021-22 season, riding a funky and futuristic jumbo frontcourt — center Jarrett Allen, No. 3 draft pick Evan Mobley, stretch 4-turned-big wing Lauri Markkanen — and an All-Star breakout from point guard Darius Garland to within two games out of the East’s top spot as late as mid-February. From there, though, the accumulated weight of injuries — season-enders for Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio early in the season, brutally timed absences for Allen, Mobley and reserve forward Dean Wade in March — effectively scuttled their season.
After a 9-16 close to the season, including a pair of losses in the play-in tournament in which they absolutely could not score when Garland was off the floor or the ball was blitzed out of his hands, Cleveland entered the summer knowing it had the foundation of a playoff team, but also knowing it needed something if it wanted to reach the next level.
Like, say, Donovan Mitchell. (Who, as you might recall, the Knicks wanted, too, which adds a whole ’nother level of spice to this matchup.)
Mitchell came at a dear cost — a package headlined by unprotected first-round draft picks in 2025, 2027 and 2029, plus the right to swap first-rounders in 2026 and 2028, and Markkanen, who would become an All-Star in Salt Lake City. Mitchell’s been worth every penny, though, averaging 28.3 points per game on 61.4% true shooting — both career highs — while giving Cleveland an elite pull-up 3-point shooter, isolation scorer, pick-and-roll creator and crunch-time closer. He did it all while fitting in beautifully next to Garland, whose production didn’t drop a tick despite the introduction of another high-volume playmaker, and without compromising that elite Mobley-and-Allen-led defense, which finished first in the NBA in points allowed per possession.
Questions persist on the wing, where head coach J.B. Bickerstaff must pick and choose from a suite of imperfect options to try to connect the dots between his stellar bigs and smalls. Those questions become even more nettlesome if starting small forward Isaac Okoro — Cleveland’s top defensive option against tough perimeter scorers, who’s also shot 43% from 3-point land since Christmas — is hampered by (or unavailable thanks to) the bone bruise in his left knee that kept him out for the final six games of the season. By and large, though, the Cavs enter the postseason with a top-10 offense, a best-in-class defense and a pair of elite on-ball playmakers with deep shooting range — the kind of ingredients you need to make a deep postseason run.
New York Knicks (47-35)
By landing the most important free agent to change teams last summer, reviving a fallen star and cutting their losses.
New York wasn’t exactly clandestine in its pursuit of Jalen Brunson; the many, many machinations of team president Leon Rose and Co. constituted enough smoke for the NBA to investigate the signing, and ultimately dock the Knicks a 2025 second-round pick. In the grand scheme, though, that’s a speeding ticket — well worth the cost of doing business, because it sure as hell looks like Knicks brass targeted the right guy.
Brunson responded to the biggest role of his career by playing the best basketball of his career, averaging 24 points and 6.2 assists per game on 49/42/83 shooting while turning the ball over on a microscopic 9.4% of New York’s plays — the ninth-lowest turnover rate among players to use at least 25% of their team’s offensive possessions, according to Stathead. After thriving primarily as a secondary ballhandler and catch-and-shoot release valve next to Luka Dončić, Brunson transformed into a full-service offensive weapon — nearly six free-throw attempts per game, a career-high 38% on pull-up 3s, top 10 among high-volume creators in points scored per isolation — and a top-flight late-game option. Only three players scored more “clutch” points than Brunson, who shot 51.6% from the field with 17 assists against five turnovers.
As helpful as Brunson’s been individually, though, his arrival carried another massive benefit: easing the shot-creation pressure on Julius Randle and rebalancing his game toward finishing. That shift — plus an altered shot diet that exchanged a bunch of long 2-point jumpers for more 3s — helped Randle move past an often-ugly 2021-22 campaign and rediscover the form from his 2020-21 breakout, averaging 25.1 points, 10 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game.
With Randle back to All-Star (and possibly All-NBA) status and Brunson playing at arguably that level, too, a franchise that had fielded below-average offenses every season since 2014 hadn’t just improved on that end; it suddenly had one of the best attacks in the whole league. Overall, New York finished second in the NBA in offensive efficiency, behind only the go-go Sacramento Kings; with Randle and Brunson on the floor together, it was even better, scoring a scorching 120.7 points per 100.
There was, however, that nettlesome other end of the court; after a 21-point blowout at the hands of Brunson’s old mates in Dallas, New York sat at 10-13 with the NBA’s fourth-worst defense. The next night — against, as luck would have it, these Cavaliers — head coach Tom Thibodeau tightened his rotation. Cam Reddish, for whom New York had sent Atlanta a first-round pick just last year, and veterans Evan Fournier and Derrick Rose went to the end of the bench; Immanuel Quickley, Quentin Grimes and Miles McBride all saw their minutes increase. New York’s had a near-top-10 defense ever since, and — since landing perfect-fit swingman Josh Hart at the trade deadline — boasts the NBA’s fifth-best record and its best net rating.
The Knicks won the season series, 3-1. The Cavs’ lone win came at home back in October — back before Thibs shuffled New York’s rotation — with Mitchell turning in a brilliant 38-point, 12-assist performance in a 121-108 victory at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.
New York won the final three meetings, though all come with at least some caveats. Allen missed the 92-81 loss on the night New York changed the rotation. Mitchell, just coming off a three-game absence due to a groin strain, seemed to cramp and aggravate the injury as he tried to attempt a game-tying shot in a January game the Knicks won by 2.
On March 31 — the lone game between the teams since New York added Hart — both sides were without starters, with Cleveland missing key defenders Allen and Okoro and the Knicks missing Randle due to the sprained left ankle that cost him the final five games of the season. In a game reminiscent of the opening round of the 2022 playoffs between the Mavericks and Jazz, Brunson (a career-high 48 points, 9 assists) outdueled Mitchell (42 points, 5 assists), and New York held Cleveland to just 14 points on 5-for-19 shooting in the fourth quarter, pulling away for a 130-116 win.
An opponent that likes to downshift and play small might be able to force Cleveland out of its preferred two-big look. Thibodeau’s Knicks, though, lean toward traditional non-floor-spacing centers, so you’d bet on Bickerstaff sticking with the foursome of Allen, Mobley, Mitchell and Garland when it counts. And for good reason: That quartet has outscored opponents by 75 points in 185 fourth-quarter minutes this season, scoring at a rate that would’ve ranked second in the NBA this season while barely allowing a point per possession on the other end.
Mitchell and Garland are both elite facilitators who pose menacing threats when they’re spotting up off the ball, equally adept at launching catch-and-shoot 3s or attacking a scrambling defense by beating a closeout to get into the teeth of the coverage for a floater or drive-and-kick feed. Allen’s one of the premier lob threats in the game, shooting 61.1% as the dive man in the pick-and-roll, according to Synergy, while Mobley’s offensive game has grown in leaps and bounds over the last few months; they’re both lethal cutters who also ranked in the top 30 in second-chance points this season. The pieces fit together beautifully.
The big question, again, is where Bickerstaff turns for the fifth member of the lineup. For much of the season, it’s been Caris LeVert — the best combination of complementary ballhandling, north-south driving juice, shooting and positional size on offer. Cleveland’s plus-39 in 106 fourth-quarter minutes this season when he slots in alongside the core four.
If Okoro’s healthy, though, he’s probably the first pick in this particular matchup, largely because the first step to grinding out the Knicks offense is slowing down Brunson. Okoro has held Brunson to 7 points on 2-for-11 shooting with just 2 assists when they’ve matched up this season; against the trio of Mitchell, LeVert and Lamar Stevens, on the other hand, Brunson has scored 64 points on 27-for-41 shooting with 10 assists against 2 turnovers. (Again: That career-high 48 came in the game Okoro missed.)
If Okoro’s in the lineup for his defense, you can bet New York will overload its coverage to try to slow down Mitchell and Garland, pack the paint and funnel the ball to him in the corner, and force him to sing for his supper. He couldn’t do that last spring; he missed all four 3-pointers he took in the play-in games against Brooklyn and Atlanta, and Cleveland got outscored by 23 points in the 36 minutes he played across the two losses. He’s been much better when the ball’s swung his way this season — shooting 37.1% from the corners and scoring just under 1.1 points per possession when attacking a closeout, according to Second Spectrum, by far a career high. He’ll have to keep that up to stay on the court in the playoffs.
New York Knicks
The biggest question here — and maybe over the entire series — is whether Randle’s able to come back from his ankle sprain in time to take the court and play effectively. (Last we heard, he was out of a protective walking boot and taking shots, but not yet doing any contact work.) If Randle’s ambulatory, it’s a good bet that the player who led the NBA in clutch minutes played will resume teaming with Brunson to serve as the battery of the Knicks’ late-game offense; that two-man duo has logged more fourth-quarter minutes than any other combination for New York.
Past that, though, Thibodeau has some interesting options. A three-guard look that flanks Brunson with Quickley, my pick for Sixth Man of the Year, and Grimes, who emerged this season as one of the league’s better young 3-and-D wings, would preserve New York’s firepower with a pair of high-quality point-of-attack options against the Mitchell/Garland backcourt; the Knicks have defended at a league-best rate when they share the court.
Swapping Grimes for Hart, who’s shot the cover off the ball since becoming a Knick while adding a grab-and-go dimension in transition and guarding all over the positional spectrum, could offer more versatility and dynamism. It would also leave the Knicks kind of small, though, which feels dicey against an Allen-Mobley frontline that has rebounded 29.2% of Cleveland’s missed shots this season — a top-five rate. Whether Thibs chooses to roll with Mitchell Robinson or Isaiah Hartenstein at center, the Knicks will have their work cut out for them keeping the Cavs’ drivers away from the rim and their big men off the glass.
Matchup to watch
With the caveat that they might not guard each other a ton, and at the risk of being too obvious: It’s Mitchell versus Brunson, right?
The last time we saw them link up in the playoffs, Brunson was flame-broiling Mitchell off the bounce in a star-making turn — 27.8 points per game on 48/36/85 shooting and 25 assists against just 2 turnovers — as Dallas ended Utah’s season and, effectively, an era in Jazz basketball. The last time we saw them in the regular season, they combined for 90 points on the kind of shot-making that leaves defenses cursing and fans’ jaws slackened:
It’s reductive to say that whichever team’s lead guard can most frequently and effectively grab the reins of the series will wind up winning … but maybe not that reductive.
Looking for something a little wonkier? How about Cleveland versus the Knicks on the defensive glass?
The Cavs are an elite defense in all sorts of areas — turnover creation, protecting the rim, limiting 3-point attempts — but one thing they’re not great at is finishing possessions. Cleveland finished just 20th in defensive rebound rate and got worse as the season wore on: 26th since Jan. 1 and 29th since the trade deadline. That could be a particular problem here, because the secret sauce in the Knicks’ No. 2-ranked offense all season long has been their pursuit of their own misses.
Only Houston posted a higher offensive rebounding rate. Only the Rockets and Raptors scored more second-chance points per game. Starting center Robinson led the NBA in offensive rebounding rate; backup Hartenstein finished sixth; Hart ranks among the elite board-crashers off the wing. The more possessions the Knicks can extend and the more garbage they can turn into gold, the more pressure they can put on that top-ranked Cavs defense and the tougher it’ll be for Mitchell and Garland to go the other way to set up shop and carve them up.
New York Knicks (+165)
Cleveland Cavaliers (-200)
Series schedule (all times Eastern)
Game 1: New York at Cleveland on Saturday (6 p.m., ESPN)
Game 2: New York at Cleveland on Tuesday (7:30 p.m., TNT)
Game 3: Cleveland at New York on April 21 (8:30 p.m., ABC)
Game 4: Cleveland at New York on April 23 (1 p.m., ABC)
*Game 5: New York at Cleveland (TBD)
*Game 6: Cleveland at New York (TBD)
*Game 7: New York at Cleveland (TBD)
Cavs in seven. Given how important he’s been to the Knicks offense all season, the uncertainty surrounding Randle gives me some pause in what otherwise looks like an awfully tight matchup. If everybody’s mostly healthy by Saturday, though, this could be the best series of Round 1.