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Danny Cunningham covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for 850 ESPN Cleveland and thelandondemand.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @RealDCunningham.
On Saturday night the Cleveland Cavaliers had their first taste of what playoff basketball is like in their 101-97 loss to the New York Knicks in Game 1 of the first round.
That taste was bittersweet, at best. This was a game that the Cavaliers will look back upon and feel they should have won had they just done a few things better throughout the night.
- Rebounding struggle
There’s never one singular reason why a team loses a game, especially in the playoffs. It’s always a culmination of things that create the eventual result. The biggest reason the Cavs lost to New York on Saturday night was their inability to limit the Knicks’ offensive rebounding.
On the night New York collected 17 offensive rebounds that led to 23 second chance points. In a low scoring game like this one, a team scoring almost a quarter of its points off of its own missed shots it’s a tough thing to come back from. In the fourth quarter alone, the Knicks were 9 of 24 from the floor. On the 15 shots that they missed, they collected seven of them.
Defensively, the Cavs actually played pretty well. But not being able to finish possessions with the basketball was their downfall. It’s the biggest challenge the team has moving forward. It’s something that’s created partially due to the lack of size the Cavs have beyond Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, but also the attitude the Knicks play with.
“You give yourself a chance in the fourth quarter, you continue to give up offensive rebounds and give them second chances, third chances, you’re going to have a hard time beating them,” Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said after the loss. “If you continue to give them opportunities, they’ll find a way.”
The Knicks did that. They were the team that found a way. One of the biggest possessions of the night came with less than 10 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The Knicks were clinging to a two-point lead with the ball. Point guard Jalen Brunson attempted a 22-foot jumper that was off the mark. A defensive rebound for the Cavs would have given them the chance to race down the floor and tie the game or win it.
Instead, New York’s Julius Randle raced past Evan Mobley, who was shaded towards Brunson, to grab the offensive rebound and threw the ball out to teammate Quentin Grimes. Grimes was fouled with 4.3 seconds remaining in regulation, knocked down both free throws, and the Knicks won the game. That’s obviously an extreme example of an offensive rebound from the Knicks hurting the Cavs, but moments like that happened all night.
On each of New York’s final four possessions of the game it either scored or grabbed an offensive rebound. Those four possessions were the ones that immediately followed a 9-0 run by the Cavs that gave them a 93-92 lead with 2:12 left in regulation.
If the Cavs are going to not only win Game 2 on Tuesday but have a chance to win the series in the long run, the rebounding needs to be fixed.
“It’s a matter of who’s initiating the contact,” Bickerstaff said. “There were multiple ones where we had inside position, and we didn’t come up with the ball. So, this is going to be the story of this series is can we limit them on the offensive glass. If we can’t, we’re going to have a hard time winning. If we can, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”
- No help off the bench
One of the biggest storylines heading into this series was just how good the bench for the Knicks is compared to a relatively underwhelming one for Cleveland. That was on display on Saturday night. Josh Hart was a big factor as to why the Knicks won this game. He finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds (five of them offensive). His 17 points alone outscored Cleveland’s bench.
The Cavs need something better off the bench than they got on Saturday night. Caris LeVert was bad, Dean Wade played 7:27 in the first half and the Cavs were outscored by 14 points during it, and Ricky Rubio couldn’t stay on the floor. The best of the bench bunch for the Cavs was Cedi Osman. His game was nothing to write home about with nine points, but he didn’t look lost or overwhelmed. The rest of the bench did.
“Obviously our bench has to give us a spark. We’ve got to find a way to manufacture some buckets. How do we create for one another and how does our bench support our starting cast?” Bickerstaff said. “We’ll go back and take a look at it, but at some point in time you’ve got to find a way to just put the ball in the basket. I thought that unit kind of struggled there.”
In total, the bench finished with 14 points on 4 of 13 shooting.
There’s an old basketball postseason adage that coaches will trust seven guys and play eight. For the Cavs right now it feels as if they only trust four or five. That’s a problem. Yes, the depth aspect of things matter less during the playoffs due to the increased minutes for starters, but having the team run off the floor during minutes with certain members of the bench on the floor isn’t a good sight for Cavs fans.
Another troubling part of this is that the bench for the Knicks was so much better than Cleveland’s without potential NBA Sixth Man of the Year Immanuel Quickley doing anything of note. Quickley missed every shot he took and finished with three points. If he played up to his standards, this game may have been ugly.
- Not enough aggressiveness
For some players, the moment on Saturday night was never going to be too big. It was fair to expect Donovan Mitchell to show up and be at his best. He finished with a game-high 38 points, eight assists, and five rebounds. He did everything he could to will the Cavs to a win. Center Jarrett Allen also looked like someone that had been there before. He finished with 14 points and 14 rebounds in almost 43 minutes.
For the newcomers to the playoffs, primarily Evan Mobley, Darius Garland, and Isaac Okoro, there needs to be a more aggressive mindset when Game 2 arrives on Tuesday night.
Garland finished the night with 17 points, but only took 13 shots, none of which game in the fourth quarter. Garland needs to share more of the load with Mitchell offensively. It’s fine to take a secondary role when Mitchell has it going on, but the Cavs need a more aggressive version of Garland on the offensive end of the floor.
“I don't think so to be honest with you,” Garland said when asked if he thought his level of aggressiveness was where it needed to be. “I think I could be a little bit more aggressive and take care of the ball in crunch time. I think it was a lot on Don coming down the stretch just trying to go get his instead of just letting the ball move. And I think that's just on me not being aggressive, not taking the shots when I'm open. So, I'll take that.”
As for Mobley, it appeared as if he wasn’t seeking out contact with the ball in his hands the same way he was during the second half of the season. That was part of the reason why he was so successful.
Just seemed like Evan Mobley didn't seek out contact offensively with the ball in his hands the way he had in the last couple of months. #Cavs need that to change in Game 2. pic.twitter.com/N5NXn2DQfo
Just seemed like Evan Mobley didn't seek out contact offensively with the ball in his hands the way he had in the last couple of months. #Cavs need that to change in Game 2. pic.twitter.com/N5NXn2DQfo— Danny Cunningham (@RealDCunningham) April 16, 2023
Mobley shot just 4 of 13 against the Knicks in Game 1. Part of that was it just being off night, according to Mobley. But he also didn’t get to the free throw line at all, that’s not something that should ever happen.
For both Mobley and Garland, how they respond to disappointing playoff debuts is going to be one of the biggest factors in determining the outcome of this series.