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The Cleveland Cavaliers have put themselves in a precarious position. They return from New York City clinging to their season, staring down an elimination game on Wednesday night against the Knicks.
Two weeks ago, the Cavs being in this type of position – potentially being eliminated in just five games in the first round – seemed unfathomable. The Cavs had a terrific regular season that earned them home court advantage in this first round. They were never a flawless team or confused to be one.
But they’re also a team that’s better than the spot they’ve put themselves in. Teams that win 51 games shouldn’t find themselves down 3-1 in the first round. Teams that finish in the top eight of both offense and defense during the regular season shouldn’t fall flat in the postseason the way that the Cavs have. It’s been jarring to see just how bad the Cavs have been during this series.
It isn’t just one thing the Cavs have done wrong, there’s a long list of reasons why this team has found itself in this hole. Realistically, that list must start with the New York Knicks playing as hard as they have. The thing is, the Knicks haven’t played all that great. Like the Cavs, they’re capable of much more than they’ve shown in the first four games of this series.
If a crystal ball would have shown the Cavs prior to the series that New York wouldn’t score more than 102 in any of the first two games, the prevailing thought would have been that the worst-case scenario is having the chance to close out the series in Game 5 at home, or that they would have a head start in preparing for a second-round matchup with Milwaukee or Miami. Obviously, that hasn’t happened. New York deserves heaps of credit for doing all of the things that the Cavs are supposed to do.
Over the past couple of seasons, the Cavs have built their culture on being tough, playing great defense, and winning the scrap. That’s the junkyard dog mentality Cleveland has embraced and promoted. In watching the first four games of the series, a neutral observer would certainly believe that’s a better way to describe the Knicks than it is the Cavs.
The Knicks have been tougher. The Knicks have played with more of a sense of urgency. With those things, it’s no surprise how often they’ve been able to create second chances for themselves offensively and seemingly come up with every loose ball. They’ve stolen Cleveland’s identity and seamlessly made it their own.
The Knicks have just wanted it more than the Cavs.
That’s a disappointing reality for a Cavs team that has built its identity around being tougher than its opponents on a nightly basis from October until the start of April.
There are plenty of schematic errors the Cavs have made. The series hasn’t been a glowing endorsement of Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s prowess on the sidelines, either. That’s certainly hampered the chances of winning the series, but ultimately this team is one that’s talented enough to overcome some of the advantages the Knicks have created for themselves in this series.
There’s plenty of blame to go around. Ultimately, the even if the Knicks have done all the little things better than the Cavs, there’s still enough talent in Cleveland to overcome things going wrong and finding a way to win. That talent just hasn’t showed up the way many thought it would. Game 4 was the ultimate moment for a superstar to show up and carry the team to a vital road victory to avoid the series deficit the Cavs find themselves in.
Donovan Mitchell played his worst game of the season at the worst possible time for the Cavs. Darius Garland has been very up and down throughout the series, Evan Mobley hasn’t shown up offensively, and Jarrett Allen has been completely outmuscled by New York’s Mitchell Robinson.
All those things matter so much more when a team stops doing the little things that their identity was built upon. When the best players play great, the little things matter a bit less. When they don’t they become glaringly obvious. That’s why the Cavs find themselves down 3-1 to a team that many picked them to beat.