NEW YORK — You can’t reduce a playoff series to one play; there’s too much going on, too many context-dependent factors for any one thing to mean everything. If you had to use just one to try to sum up the state of affairs in the first-round matchup between the Knicks and Cavaliers, though, you could do worse than the high pick-and-roll New York ran with just under two minutes to go in Sunday’s Game 4:
Jalen Brunson stares down Caris LeVert, who opened the series on Cleveland’s bench, moved into the starting lineup after the Cavs struggled offensively in Game 1, filled that void fantastically in Game 2, but frequently found himself squarely in New York’s crosshairs on defense in Game 3. Brunson gets a ball screen from Josh Hart, the forever-revving engine of the Knicks’ reserve corps, and a ready-made starter in place of the injured Quentin Grimes — just the kind of guard-guard screen with which Brunson found his offensive rhythm in Friday’s Game 3 win.
Brunson calls Hart up because Donovan Mitchell’s guarding him. Brunson wants to trigger a switch so that he can attack Mitchell; this stands to reason, considering New York had scored 25 points in 21 possessions (1.19 points per, a monster number) with Mitchell guarding Brunson through the first three games, according to NBA.com’s matchup data. Cleveland knows that and wants to avoid it, so instead of switching, LeVert joins Mitchell in a double-team blitz intended at getting the ball out of Brunson’s hands — a strategy that worked really well in Game 2, helping fuel Cleveland’s lone win this series.
New York knows that, though, and the Knicks are ready for the blitz with their counter. Hart slides into open space to give Brunson a release valve; Brunson hits him at the free-throw line, giving Hart the opportunity to make a play against the defense with a 4-on-3 advantage. He slings it to the left wing, setting up R.J. Barrett — who’d shot just 6 for 25 in Games 1 and 2 in Cleveland, but had gone 16 for 28 through two strong starts back at Madison Square Garden — for a wide-open 3-point attempt. Barrett’s triple misses … but with Cleveland big men Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley both concerned primarily with getting a body on Knicks center Mitchell Robinson, a bull in a china shop with a postseason-leading 18 offensive rebounds, Hart flies in to grab the carom himself (his ninth offensive board of the series).
With the defense scrambling, Hart kicks it back out to Brunson — whose NBA breakthrough came last spring when he outdueled Mitchell in the Mavericks’ first-round win over the Jazz — whom the Knicks signed at the outset of free agency to be the steadying presence at point guard they’d lacked for literal decades, and who became New York’s unquestioned primary ballhandler when the franchise’s well-publicized pursuit of Mitchell fizzled, opening the door for the Cavs to swoop in and land him.
What started with Brunson ends with him. He steps into the 3-pointer without hesitation, with the confidence of someone who believes he’s the best player on the floor — the best player in the series — because, well, he has been.
There are plenty of other reasons why the Knicks won Game 4 102-93. They got another stellar performance by Barrett, who was determined to get downhill all the way to the rim from the opening tip, and who finished with a playoff-career-high 26 points on 9-for-18 shooting. Hart came up huge in Grimes’ stead, adding 19 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, excellent defense on Mitchell, and, much like in Game 1, another answered late-game prayer to keep Cleveland at bay. Robinson continued to be the most dominant big man in a series featuring a former All-Star and a future one. Despite being outscored by Cedi Osman and Isaac Okoro, the Knicks’ bench unit turned in excellent minutes on the defensive end.
That included strong work from Obi Toppin, who grabbed five offensive rebounds (eight total), made a couple of baskets and acquitted himself well defensively. Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau stuck with Toppin for nearly the entire fourth quarter, keeping Julius Randle on the bench after the All-Star power forward continued to struggle with his shot; he went just 3 for 10 in Game 4 and has made just 14 of his 45 field-goal attempts over the last three games.
Randle didn’t appear to be moving well Sunday, just eight days removed from his return from a left ankle sprain and five days removed from his nasty fall near the end of Game 2. After the game, Thibodeau praised Randle for undergoing around-the-clock treatment to put himself in position to provide whatever he can.
“A lot of guys probably wouldn’t even be playing” through the injuries, Thibodeau said of Randle. “I knew the quick turnaround [from Friday’s Game 3] would probably impact him more than most players. You know, he was out an extended amount of time. … But the thing I love about him is that he gives you everything he has. He’s done that to come back the way he did, to be ready for Game 1. Credit to him. We need him. He’s our horse. We know that.”
That late-fourth pick-and-roll, though? That’s the series in a snapshot. Thrust, parry, riposte; lather, rinse, repeat. By the end of Game 4, it’s about who’s executing the adjustments best and who’s got the hoopers best equipped to meet the moment. The Knicks, so far, are 2-for-2; that’s why, after performing for a raucous Madison Square Garden crowd, they’re up 3-1 on the fourth-seeded Cavaliers in the best-of-seven first-round series, with a chance to close it out in Cleveland in Game 5 on Wednesday.
Brunson, for the third time in four games, led the dance. Cleveland coach J.B. Bickerstaff has chosen to give Darius Garland the primary assignment on Brunson over the past couple of games — which Garland said after the game is a matchup he wants — and Brunson has responded with hellfire and brimstone, getting to his preferred spots on the floor to rise up for the pull-up jumpers he repeatedly splashed throughout the best season of his career. He splashed them again on Sunday, scoring a game-high 29 points on 11-for-22 shooting (including a 5-for-9 mark from long distance) to go with 6 rebounds, 6 assists, a steal and a block in 42 minutes. Through four games, New York has outscored Cleveland by 21 points in Brunson’s 147 minutes and been outscored by five in the 45 minutes he’s sat; he’s made precisely the type of difference that Knicks brass hoped for when it brought him to town.
Mitchell, on the other hand, hasn’t. Since exploding for 38 points in Game 1 and dishing 13 assists in Cleveland’s Game 2 win, the All-Star guard has struggled mightily to relocate his form, logging more turnovers (12) than assists (10) during a decidedly unfriendly stay in Manhattan and scoring just 11 points on 5-for-18 shooting in Game 4.
There are multiple factors contributing to Mitchell’s woes: the physical on-ball defense of Hart; more frequent double-teams at the point of attack to try to force the ball out of his hands; aggressive coverage behind the play by New York help defenders committed to cutting off his driving lanes and sagging off less threatening options like Osman and Okoro. Combine all that with a frozen run of shooting luck at the most inopportune time, and Mitchell has looked little like the high-end offensive engine who led Cleveland to 51 wins and the No. 7 offense in the NBA.
“I played like s***,” Mitchell said after the game. “I’m the leader of this group, everybody did their job, and I didn’t. Simple as that.”
While Mitchell flailed, the Knicks continued to do one of the most important jobs they’ve excelled at all season: attacking the offensive glass.
New York rebounded nearly 31% of its missed shots during the regular season, the second-highest mark in the NBA. Through the first three games of the series, that was up to 36.4%; it rose to an eye-popping 41.2% in Game 4, with the Knicks pulling down 17 offensive boards that produced 21 second-chance points Sunday, led by Robinson, who continued to dominate the front of the rim by grabbing seven of his game-high 11 rebounds on that end.
“We keep talking about it, we keep talking about it, we keep talking about it,” Bickerstaff told reporters after the game. “You learn when it’ll hurt the most. We’ve been talking about our success going as quickly as we learn from our mistakes. In these three games we haven’t learned quickly enough, and they’ve made us pay.”
Silver linings are few and far between when you’re in the Cavaliers’ predicament; NBA teams who trail 3-1 in a series are 13-258 all-time, according to data compiled by WhoWins.com. Beyond just the allure of sleeping in your own bed and shooting in a more familiar gym packed with friendlier fans than the ones the Cavs found at the Garden, though, Bickerstaff and Co. did find success with a couple of tactical changes in the third quarter that helped Cleveland erase a 15-point first-half deficit and claw back into the game.
On the Cavs’ first two possessions of the second half, they weaponized Garland’s skill off the ball. First, they had him run Brunson through off-ball screens to create space before flowing into a pick-and-roll with Mobley that allowed Garland to step into a pull-up jumper; then, they took advantage of Brunson top-locking him by having Garland cut back-door into open space for a layup. Those buckets helped Garland find the rhythm that he so sorely lacked in his 4-for-21 Game 3 and 1-for-5 first half to Game 4; he’d go on to score 21 of his team-high 23 points in the second half.
After opening the game primarily with Mitchell-Allen and Garland-Mobley pick-and-rolls, Bickerstaff also shook things up out of halftime by leaning more into the Garland-Allen pairing. The benefit was twofold: With Brunson guarding Garland, it put New York’s weakest defender into the action; with Robinson guarding Allen, it drew the Knicks’ best rim protector out of the paint, opening the door for more rim attacks. The Cavs scored 11 points on five Garland-Allen pick-and-rolls in the third, according to Second Spectrum, helping spark a 21-9 run that gave Cleveland its first lead of the game.
The best thing the Cavs found on Sunday — the only thing, really — was when they switched up the pick-and-roll alignments and had Jarrett Allen screen for Darius Garland. It got Jalen Brunson in the action and Mitchell Robinson out of the paint, and opened up the floor a ton. pic.twitter.com/rdcdF5rNH3
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) April 23, 2023
The Knicks would claw the lead back by quarter’s end, though, with — who else? — Brunson hitting a pull-up triple with 6.2 seconds left in the third. He’d add a 12-foot pull-up on the first play of the fourth to put New York ahead for good and draw them within 48 good minutes of Round 2 and the franchise’s first postseason series win in nine years.
“It’s not over,” Brunson said after the game. “It’s not even close to being over. We’ve got to continue to just keep focusing on one day at a time. There’s nothing to celebrate. There’s nothing to truly be happy about. Obviously, with one tonight, we’re one step closer, but we’ve got to continue to have that same mindset, that same mentality that we have over the past couple of games.”