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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.
The Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the New York Knicks 107-90 to even the best-of-seven series at one game each. Here are five takeaways from the blowout victory for the Cavs.
Darius Garland’s big night
On Monday afternoon following practice at the team’s facility in Independence, All-Star guards Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland sat on a bench off to the side of the courts. It wasn’t the first time the duo has had a discussion like this, but it was the first of the playoff variety.
“I think there’s certain moments that called for it. And I talked to him for a pretty long time the other day – yesterday – just about what he sees and also what I see,” Mitchell said at shootaround on Tuesday morning. “Understanding that we didn’t have the best game cohesively together so how do you find areas together to be the best for this team and I think him being a little more aggressive in instances offensively. This is something we are continuing to work on and build on but I think for Game 2 sometimes shots are going to be contested, sometimes you have to just knock them down.”
That was a prophecy for what Tuesday night had in store for Garland. He spent the first half of Game 2 against the Knicks carving up their defense with deep 3-pointers and earning trips to the free throw line. After a disappointing Game 1, Garland’s play on Tuesday night was exactly where it needed to be. His level of aggressiveness was exactly what the Cavs needed.
Garland went into the locker room at halftime with 26 points on just 10 field goal attempts and the Cavs holding a 20-point lead. He was far and away the best player on the floor for the first 24 minutes. His response to a loss on Saturday night was better than it could have been expected to be.
“He knew what we needed, and he knew how important this game was,” Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said after the game. “And he went out and did what he had to do and was aggressive, was assertive, put a ton of pressure on them.”
For Garland, his outburst on Tuesday night was the result of two days of encouragement from those inside the Cavaliers organization.
“I mean, everybody in the building told me to go be aggressive and go shoot the ball,” Garland said. “I mean, I watched the film from the first game and saw some opportunities where I can go get mine and go be aggressive and that's what I just tried to do today.”
Caris LeVert’s impact on both ends
A big reason why the Cavs were able to dominate the Knicks on Tuesday night was the play of Caris LeVert on both ends of the floor.
Offensively, LeVert finished with 24 points on nine of 16 shooting. He made four 3-pointers and was a huge scoring boost off the bench for the Cavs. He did that while enjoying the task of defending New York’s Jalen Brunson on the other end of the floor. The defense is certainly just as important of a task, if not more important.
On that end of the floor LeVert helped to hold Brunson to just 20 points (six of which came in the fourth quarter when the game was out of reach) on 17 shots. It was the worst shooting performance Brunson has had since December 21.
It’s fair to wonder just how much of Brunson’s ineffectiveness on offense is related to being taxed defensively more. The Cavs tried to put Brunson into actions on defense as often as they could. This meant bringing LeVert up as a screener for either Mitchell of Garland. The Knicks had no desire to switch that action, leaving Brunson to recover back to LeVert. That created a number of open looks or free runs to the basket for the Cavs. Of the 24 points scored by LeVert on Tuesday night, 11 of them came when Brunson was his primary defender.
“I mean, you got to make great offensive players participate on both ends of the floor and it just wears them down. It's difficult to do,” Bickerstaff said. “So hopefully as the series goes on, you'll see that starting to happen, but making elite offensive players defend, it makes the offense very hard to do because it's hard in this league to carry a load offensively and then have to participate defensively. It's extremely difficult to do.”
That’s one of the biggest benefits to having LeVert on the floor. Even if he isn’t as respected as he maybe should be as a shooter, he can create havoc on the floor by making Brunson work harder than the Knicks would like on defense, and that may be something that’s impacting how well their offense is working.
The rotation for the Cavs looked different on Tuesday night compared to Game 1. In the loss on Saturday night, the Cavs played nine guys in the first half and just seven guys in the second half as Dean Wade and Ricky Rubio played in the first but not the second.
On Tuesday, the Cavs didn’t play either Wade or Rubio, and inserted Danny Green into the rotation for meaningful minutes after not playing in Game 1. Since being acquired by the Cavs in February, Green hasn’t played much with the Cavs regulars. Seeing him come off the bench on Tuesday night provided the team with a bit of a boost emotionally, as well as more space to operate offensively.
“Just looking for space.,” Bickerstaff said of the decision to play Green. “The way that they try to defend us, they want to do the job of really, really protecting the paint. So being able to find a way to create as much space as we could.”
The Cavs also only played Isaac Okoro for two minutes in Game 2. He picked up a couple of quick fouls in the first quarter and never returned to the floor.
Essentially, the rotation for the Cavs shrunk down to seven on Tuesday, and while Okoro may play more than the two minutes and 45 seconds he was on the floor for in Game 2, it’s hard to imagine another big change for Game 3. Cedi Osman impacted the game in positive ways despite not shooting well, Green was a positive on both ends of the floor, and LeVert was terrific.
For the rest of this series, that’s what the bench may look like.
On Saturday night, Mitchell was fantastic with 38 points. The team needed him to have a big night scoring the basketball to have a chance at winning the game. The same wasn’t the case on Tuesday. There was plenty of scoring from the others, so Mitchell finished with just 17 points.
What Mitchell did particularly well in Game 2 was find open teammates. He handed out a career-high 13 assists in the win for the Cavs, and that’s not counting his conversation from Monday with Garland about his level of aggression.
The rebounding battle
Every time the Cavs and Knicks had met this season, the Knicks had collected more rebounds than the Cavs. That changed on Tuesday night. The Cavs out-rebounded New York 43-36 on the night, a big difference after losing the rebounding battle by 13 in Game 1.
That’s a big deal for the Cavs. With more top end talent, if the Cavs out-rebound the Knicks, it becomes more difficult to see New York’s path to winning games. The Knicks need to create more opportunities offensively to keep up with the Cavs. They did that on Saturday with 23 second chance points. Tuesday’s Game 2 saw them score just 13 second chance points.
If that’s not a battle New York can consistently win, this isn’t a series the Cavs will lose.