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Danny Cunningham covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for 850 ESPN Cleveland and thelandondemand.com. You can find him on Twitter at @RealDCunningham.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are set to begin their first playoff series since June of 2018 this weekend against the New York Knicks. The Cavs have homecourt advantage in the series and are favored on the betting markets to win four of the seven games.
This series has the chance to be one of the more interesting ones of the first round, but there’s a very clear avenue for the Cavaliers to win and advance to the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. If that is the case for the Cavs, here are the three things they’ll need to go their way against the Knicks.
1. Donovan Mitchell has to be the best player in the series
This season Mitchell has been everything the Cavs could have imagined when they acquired him via trade in September. He’s been a superstar in every sense of the word for the Cavs and it would be a massive surprise if he weren’t named to at least the All-NBA second team.
On paper, Mitchell is the best player in this series by a relatively wide margin. He’s had the best season of his career during his first year in Cleveland. If he’s not the best player in this series against the Knicks it’s difficult to envision the Cavs winning four out of seven games.
Mitchell set a franchise record this season with 13 games with 40 or more points and scored 30 or more points in 31 of the 68 games he played this season. The Cavs went 22-9 in those games. If Mitchell averages 30 points per game on respectable efficiency during this series it’s hard to see the Cavs losing it.
2. Darius Garland’s shooting has to return
Garland has a terrific season overall on the offensive end of the court. He had to take a bit of a step back behind Mitchell. One of the reasons Garland was so good this year was thanks to the best shooting season of his career. He shot 41 percent from beyond the 3-point arc for the year as a whole. That number is outstanding and an accurate glimpse of who Garland is as a shooter.
The issue here is that Garland’s most recent stretch hasn’t been very good in terms of his shooting. He missed the second of two games the Cavs played in Miami last month with a right quad contusion. Prior to that, Garland had been shooting 43 percent from deep. Since that missed game he’s been just a 28.6 percent 3-point shooter in his final 11 games of the season.
It's not something that the Cavs seem overly worried about heading into the series with the Knicks.
“I mean I don't worry about Darius’ shots,” Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said on Wednesday. “I'm confident, if he gets open shots or he gets his 3s he'll make them. He’s a good shooter.”
If Garland continues to struggle from beyond the arc it severely limits how good the Cavs can be offensively. If he returns to the form he showed for the majority of the season the Cavs will be awfully difficult for the Knicks to slow down.
3. Don’t be overwhelmed by the moment
Madison Square Garden is a special place. It’s earned the moniker “The World’s Most Famous Arena” for a reason. It’s a place where so many of the greats in the NBA have showed up and had career nights. The Garden is also home to a rabid fanbase that’s thirsty for any sort of playoff success since the Knicks have won just a single postseason series since their run to the NBA Finals back in 2000.
That building is one that can be as intimidating as it is majestic. With this being the first time this group in Cleveland has been in the playoffs together, it’s easy to see a scenario where the team could be overwhelmed with the stage. If that happens, things become much more difficult for the Cavs. The margin for error is razor thin.
The good news for the Cavs is this isn’t the first go around for everyone on the roster. Mitchell has played in plenty of big playoff games in his career, Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert have both played a playoff series in one of the NBA’s more intimidating environments in Philadelphia. The younger guys will also have veterans like Danny Green (who has played more playoff games than almost every other active player) to lean on in these moments.