“It should be lit.”: The definitive Cleveland Cavaliers playoff guide – part 1

The playoffs are nearly here for the Cleveland Cavaliers as they set to take on Jalen Brunson and the New York Knicks.
playoff cavs knicks
CLEVELAND, OH – MARCH 31: Immanuel Quickley #5 of the New York Knicks and Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Cleveland Cavaliers embrace after the game on March 31, 2023, at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: The user expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, the user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)

Well, it was only a five-year absence for the Cleveland Cavaliers but, they’re finally back! In a few days’ time, the Cavaliers will open up the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs at home against the New York Knicks. For many faces on Cleveland’s roster, it’ll be their first foray into the postseason. But, with key leaders like Donovan Mitchell having a wealth of playoff experience, it should also be a bit of an easier transition for the Cavaliers.

Despite Mitchell’s playoff prowess and the overwhelming star talent on Cleveland’s roster, New York shouldn’t be underestimated. They’re a scrappy collection of players headlined by Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle. Sure, there is some doubt whether or not Randle will be 100% due to rehabbing a sprained ankle. The Knicks finished the season 3-1 overall against the Cavaliers and have to feel good about their chances despite so much seemingly going in Cleveland’s favor. Today, Right Down Euclid will tell you what to watch for as the Cavaliers prepare for their playoff run.

Defending despite a level of uncertainty

Again, Randle’s availability could set the tone for either team in this series. If he’s looking similar to what drew him All-Star honors this year, then Cavaliers sophomore big man Evan Mobley will spend a lot of the series matching Randle minute for minute. Mobley is Cleveland’s best big-man defender, especially when defending stretchier bigs like Randle. Sure, Jarrett Allen can step up at times as well. But, he doesn’t have the acumen or ability like his co-partner does to handle a consistent three-point, isolation-scoring threat like Randle.

As of Wednesday, Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said Randle had been a limited participant in practice. So, he might not be available for Game 1 but it’s definitely worth monitoring. If Randle is available, it changes things for Cleveland on defense even if the All-Star forward isn’t 100%. When Randle plays, the Knicks move at a much slower pace. When he doesn’t play, and Obi Toppin starts in his place, New York pushes the pace behind star guard Jalen Brunson. That depth of uncertainty can make things a bit hectic to plan for if you’re the Cavaliers.

“When Julius is there, it’s a lot of iso-ball,” said Darius Garland to Right Down Euclid. “He’s just trying to get downhill and be aggressive. But, when he’s not, Jalen Brunson has the ball in his hands a lot more. He too tries to get in his iso bag and be aggressive. It’s just a different type of intensity.”

Whether it’s Randle or Toppin, Evan Mobley will draw whomever the Knicks start at power forward. Mobley can defend in space (it makes him a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate) and on the interior. Mobley will comfortably handle the pressure of defending either of them. But, if Randle is playing but is still limited on the floor, it could be a bit of a cheat code for Cleveland on defense.

Sure, Randle can still be a threat, hobbled or not. But, if New York isn’t 100% Mobley can conserve energy defending him and assist with slowing down Brunson. Containing Brunson is already plenty difficult, but with Isaac Okoro, the best point-of-attack defender on the Cavaliers, dealing with a knee injury makes it even harder for Cleveland. Several sources tell Right Down Euclid that Okoro will try to play in this opening series against the Knicks. But, if he’s not at full strength, Mobley can assist Okoro and the rest of Cleveland by slowing down Brunson and making the rest of New York’s roster uncomfortable.

How the Cavaliers perform on defense will set the tone for the entirety of the series. Granted, Okoro’s health and availability will impact that, but the same can be said for Randle. The Knicks have the second-best offense in the league and finding ways to slow it down and grind it out will be paramount for defending home court and making things more difficult than they need to be since there will be plenty of noise off the court trying to do that already.

playoff knicks randle allen
NEW YORK, NY – JANUARY 24: Julius Randle #30 of the New York Knicks dribbles the ball during the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on January 24, 2023 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

Silencing the off-court narrative through their biggest star

It’s no secret that everyone expected Donovan Mitchell to join the New York Knicks last summer. The media thought it. Players across the league thought it. Mitchell even told the media when he was introduced as a Cavalier that he would be joining his childhood team. But, basketball, like life, can’t go exactly as planned, especially in trades. So, that means that everyone moved past this, right?

Well, not exactly.

No matter how this series goes, when things shift to Madison Square Garden for Game 3 and Game 4, the Mitchell narrative will be part of the talk of the town – especially if the Cavaliers are struggling against the Knicks. So, for Cleveland to make it through the things out of their control, they have to quiet the sound win or lose.

But, quieting the noise off the court might be a bit easier because of Mitchell. Toward the end of the regular season, Mitchell opened up about this season for the Cavaliers coming full circle after a loss to his childhood Knicks. Again, it’s not what everyone expected to happen and now, Mitchell is using it as motivation to show New York what they missed out on.

“What kid wouldn’t want to grow up and play against his hometown team in the playoffs,” said Mitchell. “I think it’s something that’s really special and near and dear to me being able to play in a playoff [series] in front of my friends and family. A team that I grew up watching. Against a guy that’s an assistant coach over there [Johnnie Bryant] who kind of basically taught me everything I know at this point. So it’s great. I’m excited for the challenge.”

Some nights Cleveland will only go as far as Mitchell can carry him. Thankfully, Mitchell does have the propensity to level up when the stage is the biggest so the Cavaliers are in very capable hands. In six postseason appearances, Mitchell is averaging 28.3 points on 43.1% shooting along with 4.9 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.2 steals in 37.0 minutes per game. Win or lose, Mitchell is going down swinging, which should help quiet some of the outside noise.

Handling the playoff newbie pressure

Obviously, Mitchell will do a ton for the Cavaliers come playoff time all over the court. But, other than Danny Green and technically Cedi Osman, the remainder of Cleveland’s roster doesn’t have much high-pressure playoff experience. Based on how this year went, the Cavaliers must feel good about their chances. Unfortunately, the postseason is a completely different monster and can gobble you up faster than you can blink.

To help, head coach J.B. Bickerstaff and his coaching staff have been blasting simulated crowd noise during practice leading up to the series to help simulate the intensity of things either home or away. The younger players have been picking the brains of veterans, like Green, as well to ensure they can know all the can heading into the postseason.

“It was a while ago, but I do remember my moments and how much I’ve grown since then,” said Green. “It’s hard for me to pinpoint or point out what it’s like to guys here until I see it happening.

“… If there are moments where I see guys are second-guessing themselves and need a little confidence, I’ll be able to give them a little word of advice that helped me get over certain things when I was younger.”

“They said when you get the first win or you get a win, it feels like the best thing ever. Then when you lose, it’s like the worst thing ever. It’s going to be a rollercoaster,” said Garland. “You just have to keep your head. We’ve all had conversations with them. Most of the guys on the team haven’t been in the playoffs, so we all just had conversations in the locker room, asking them what does it feel like being in the playoffs? What is it mentally, what is it physically?

“The conversations have been had all season. We know a little bit of it. They always tell us you won’t know until you’re really in it. We’re just waiting now.”

A source said that every practice has been increasingly intense leading up to Saturday with every player aware of what’s ahead of them. Sure, they can practice being prepared as much as they want. But, how the Cavaliers look in Game 1 could set the tone for the remainder of the series. But, based on what’s been said out of practice, things seem encouraging despite the lack of experience.

“This is the first time that basketball has been around in April since ‘98,” said Garland to Right Down Euclid. “You shouldn’t miss this. Everybody should be excited. Everybody should be there with the towels. I think it’s a white-out.

“It should be lit.”

Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at [email protected] He can also be found three to five times weekly on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.

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