The New York Knicks are just one win away from the second round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Jalen Brunson led the way as the fifth seeded Knicks won consecutive games at home to take a 3-1 lead in the series. I detail what the Knicks have done so well, both individually and collectively, to impose their will on this Cleveland Cavaliers team.
RJ Barrett Making a Name for Himself at Madison Square Garden
RJ Barrett has been subjected to quite a lot of criticism during his time with the Knicks, which heightened during Games 1-2 in Cleveland. The fourth-year guard averaged 10.5 points on 24 percent shooting on 12.5 percent shooting from three in the first two games of the series. The Cavaliers did a good job of making Barrett uncomfortable on the offensive end, forcing him to take heavily-contested shots, both in the paint and on the perimeter.
Coming home to Madison Square Garden to play in front of his home fans was exactly what the former Duke Blue Devil needed. He bounced back in Game 3, going for 19 points on 8-for-12 shooting, 3-for-6 shooting from three and eight rebounds in 31 minutes. The Knicks needed someone to contribute alongside Jalen Brunson, and Barrett did exactly that. His scoring total was great, but the efficiency he had was even more impressive.
Barrett showed up in a big way for Game 4, scoring 26 points on 9-for-18 shooting, despite missing all six of his three-point attempts. He attacked the basket, time and time again, which allowed him to get to the line as well. Barrett was relentless with his attacks off the dribble, always finding a way to get to his stronger left hand. Without his contributions, it is hard to envision a scenario where the Knicks would be up 3-1 in this series.
Tom Thibodeau and his staff put Barrett in positions to succeed at home, but what can they do to receive the same production from him on the road? That will be the question as the series returns to Cleveland on Wednesday night. Barrett showed in Games 3 & 4 that he can be an efficient scorer, but now it is all about doing it in a hostile environment on the road. If the Knicks can get that from him, New York could be on their way to the second round of the playoffs.
Tom Thibodeau Sticking With Obi Toppin in the Fourth
Through three quarters of play in Game 4, Knicks forward Julius Randle had seven points on 3-for-10 shooting and 0-for-4 shooting from three-point range. The two-time All-Star failed to get in any sort of rhythm, leaving Thibodeau with a difficult decision to make going into the fourth quarter. With the game hanging in the balance, the Knicks head coach stuck with the five that were playing well, which included Obi Toppin and not Randle.
Toppin, who was averaging under 15 minutes of action in Games 1-3, was given the opportunity to get extended minutes with the first unit. Thibodeau relied on the 25-year-old in a game the Knicks so desperately needed, and the former eighth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft delivered. Toppin had two points, five rebounds (two of which were offensive rebounds) and a 7 +/- in the fourth, playing all but 41 seconds in the final quarter.
OBI TOPPIN GETTING TO THE BUCKET 💪 pic.twitter.com/2Vkl5yaUe4
— x – KNICKS ON MSG (@KnicksMSGN) April 23, 2023
His numbers were far from staggering, but Toppin made some big players down the stretch that helped the Knicks secure the win. With 06:30 remaining in the fourth, RJ Barrett missed a three-pointer, but the former Dayton Flyer kept the possession alive with an offensive rebound. Toppin dribbled the ball out to reset the offense, but saw that a driving lane had opened for himself. The forward got by Donovan Mitchell and finished over Jarrett Allen, giving the Knicks a 86-79 lead at the time.
Coaches with a lack of playoff experience may have gone back to Randle in the fourth, given his production throughout the regular season. But Thibodeau understood that he (Randle) was struggling, so he opted to go with Toppin. The balance between those two at the four position has been a pleasant surprise in the first four games of this series. Some of that has to do with Randle’s ankle injury at the end of the regular season, but credit to Toppin, who has been impactful in each game against the Cavaliers.
Giving Donovan Mitchell Fits on the Defensive End
The Cavaliers knew that Donovan Mitchell had to be the best player on the floor in order to win this series. Besides his 38-point performance in Game 1, the Knicks have been able to hold the superstar guard in check. In the three games since, Mitchell is averaging just 16.6 points on 41.6 percent shooting from the field. The Knicks made some adjustments on the defensive end, and they are certainly paying off.
His individual performance in Game 4 says it all, as Mitchell scored 11 points on a staggering 5-for-18 shooting from the field and 0-for-4 shooting from three. Thibodeau put Josh Hart on the four-time All-Star to start, a decision that proved to be the right one. Mitchell was given a multitude of looks whenever the ball was in his hands. Sometimes, the Knicks would send a second defender to double him, forcing the ball to another player on the perimeter. Other times, Mitchell would be forced to rise up for a shot with two defenders in the area.
The Knicks have been in control for a majority of this series, and one of the biggest reasons why is because of the way they have defended. In the regular season, the Cavaliers had the eighth best offensive rating (115.5) in the league. Cleveland was expected to impose their will, but the Knicks have held them under 100 points in three of the four games. The Cavaliers offense has been lackluster at times, and it all starts with Mitchell and his ability to score. Without him going, it is hard to see a way back from the four seed in the Eastern Conference.
Consistently Winning the Battle on the Interior
Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen versus Mitchell Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein was a matchup some believed the Cavaliers would have an advantage in coming into this series. The strength and physicality of Allen in particular was something that Robinsion had trouble matching in the past, but that is no longer a concern. The Knicks have completely dominated in the interior, both offensively and defensively.
The Knicks are winning the rebound battle 179-156 through four games. New York also had 58 offensive rebounds, 18 of which have come from Robinson. The Cavaliers may have the two most talented bigs in this series, yet the Knicks have the advantage down low. Robinson and Hartenstein have done a great job of positioning themselves for the rebound, something they have done all season.
For large portions of the regular season, Cavaliers head coach J. B. Bickerstaff had Mobley and Allen on the floor at the same time. Unfortunately for Cleveland, the pair has been ineffective against New York, forcing an adjustment. Bickerstaff has opted for a four-guard lineup at times, going a bit smaller in order to create more space for Darius Garland and Mitchell. The lanes to drive are there, but the Knicks have two bigs who are able to contest shots well from any part of the floor.
Robinson staying out of foul trouble has also played a monumental role in this, as he has a total of seven fouls in four games. Earlier in his career, the 25-year-old would be in foul trouble early, picking up two or three fouls in the first eight or nine minutes. Now in his fifth year, Robinson is mature and understands what he needs to do in order to stay on the floor. His presence has been felt, as the Cavaliers simply have had no answer for him.