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The Cleveland Cavaliers dropped Game 3 to the New York Knicks 99-79 on Friday night at Madison Square Garden to fall behind in the series 2-1.
Here are four takeaways from the Game 3 loss to the Knicks.
Why a lineup change now?
The Cavs looked different from the start on Friday night. For the first time since Nov. 11, 2022, the team started Caris LeVert alongside Donovan Mitchell, Darius Garland, Evan Mobley, and Jarrett Allen. That group has consistently been the team’s best lineup throughout the season and it torched the Knicks in Game 2.
It did not go well for the Cavs in Game 3.
Part of the reason LeVert shifted to the bench earlier this season was so that he could play with the basketball in his hands more frequently than when he joined Mitchell and Garland in the starting lineup. That led to him finding his rhythm earlier in games and then the Cavs could put him in with the other four starters when they needed to close out games. It was a formula that worked regularly.
Going away from what worked all season long in the biggest game to date was a puzzling decision when it was announced and looked worse in hindsight. From game to game in the playoffs there are adjustments made. Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff did a tremendous job between the first two games. Between Game 2 on Tuesday and Friday’s Game 3, it felt like Bickerstaff overthought some things.
Sure, Isaac Okoro only played the first couple of minutes in Game 2 before exiting after a pair of quick fouls. The Cavs then figured themselves out offensively and rolled over the Knicks without Okoro. Removing him from the starting lineup is a move that seems shortsighted. It took the Cavs away from what had got them there.
It’s impossible to say how big of an impact it had on the team early on. That lineup did create a ton of good looks in the first half that didn’t go down. Bickerstaff can’t stand out on the wing and make shots, but something is to be said about putting the team in the best position to win, and this move didn’t seem to be it.
Overall, LeVert was fine, finishing the night with 17 points on 17 shots. He’s regarded himself, as recently as this week, as a second half type of player and all 17 of his points came in the second half after he found his rhythm.
With how bad the Cavs played overall, it’s more than likely they lose this game anyways, but the lineup shift could not have helped.
A night to forget for Darius Garland
Part of the reason the Cavs were so bad offensively falls on the shoulders of Garland. He finished the night with 10 points on 4-of-21 shooting from the floor and 1-of-7 from 3-point range.
It’s hard to think of any games since Garland’s rookie year that have been worse than the one he played on Friday night in New York. He was missing shots he normally makes, had a couple of careless turnovers, and looked out of sorts in just about every capacity on offense.
Garland missed plenty of shots he normally makes, especially early on in the game. He missed his first six 3-pointers, with many of them wide open. Whether it was just an off game or something else, it couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Cavs.
Offense wasn’t the only area Garland struggled on Friday night, either. For much of this series he’s spent time defending New York’s RJ Barrett with success. Barrett entered Game 3 having scored 21 points total in the first two games on 6-of-25 shooting and 1-of-8 from 3-point range. Some of that was just poor shooting from Barrett, but Garland had been doing a solid job defensively, too. In Game 3, Barrett had 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting and eight rebounds. That’s a big reason why the Knicks were able to win.
To make things worse, Garland seemed to tweak his ankle in the second half when he stepped on a cameraman that was seated courtside. He exited the game for a few moments and changed his shoes before returning to the floor. It’s certainly something to keep an eye on with a short turnaround before Game 4 on Sunday.
In every facet of the game, this was a night for Garland to forget.
This game was a rock fight. It was tied at 17 points after the first quarter, and the Cavs had only 32 points in the first half as a whole. They were the first team in the NBA this year – regular season or playoffs – to be held below 80 points.
The reasons for that are two-fold. At first, the Cavs had a great process. In the first quarter the group as a whole created a ton of open shots that they just couldn’t get to fall. The Cavs were 1-of-11 in the quarter as a team, and only one of the 10 misses was more than lightly contested (Mitchell had a 3-pointer blocked by Mitchell Robinson) and a handful of them were wide open.
It’s not as if these shots were being taken by poor shooters, either. Garland and Mitchell combined for seven attempts, LeVert missed a wide open look, Cedi Osman misfired on one, and Danny Green had a miss as well. The only 3-point attempt that the Knicks were happy to allow was the corner 3-pointer taken by Mobley.
For that group to shoot that poorly to start a game is ridiculously unlucky, but that bad luck struck in one of the worst moments it could have.
Truthfully, not one member of the Cavs had their best offensive game on Friday night. Mitchell led the way with 22 points, but it was a poor game by his standards. LeVert had 17 points in the second half, but couldn’t score before halftime. It was the worst game the Cavs have played on that end of the floor by every metric imaginable.
Flush it and move on
There’s not much time between now and Game 4 on Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden. There’s such little time that the Cavs shouldn’t even bother to watch this game again. Forget the game happened and move on. There’s almost nothing to be learned from a performance this bad.
Because of that, the best course of action could just be to flush it out the system and focus on finding a way to return to Cleveland Sunday evening with the series tied at two games each.
If that happens, the Cavs will have every reason to feel good about themselves moving forward, even with a loss as bad as tonight’s.