Heading into their Tuesday night tilt against the New York Knicks, there was a palpable sense of calm at Cleveland Clinic Courts, the practice facility of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Considering Cleveland’s chaotic position last season during their Play-In Tournament scramble, the tranquility and composure radiating from the Cavaliers was a surprising, albeit welcome deviation. Last season, when the pressure was on, Cleveland crumbled in the second half against the Atlanta Hawks, ending their season earlier than hoped.
That’s why the wave of calm washing over the court was surprising. The Cavaliers came out flat in their series-opening matchup against the Knicks from when things were underway to when the final buzzer sounded. At times, it felt uncharacteristic of how things went against New York. Perhaps it was anxiousness to play or the anxiety wrapped around the moment itself. Whatever it was, something wasn’t quite right for Cleveland in the team’s 101-97 loss on Saturday.
Mind you; some credit should deservingly go to the Knicks as well. The Cavaliers were out-worked physically on the offense glass by New York and Knicks bench guard Josh Hart was a constant nuisance on either end of the floor in Game 1. You could tell there was frustration from how head coach J.B. Bickerstaff and guard Darius Garland discussed it with the media moments after losing. But, again, there was a touch of remaining even-keeled through it all as well. You could feel that Cleveland’s confidence in themselves hadn’t waned despite the frustrations of what transpired on the court Saturday night.
“It’s the way this group has always been since we’ve been together,” said Bickerstaff to Right Down Euclid before Game 2. “There is an even temperament no matter the circumstances because they believe in one another and care about one another. They know what they’re capable of and now it just comes down to going on the floor and going out and getting it done. That comes from leadership that comes from their individual personalities. We don’t have guys that swing the pendulum of emotion. We have a bunch of guys who stay pretty even-keeled throughout all of this.”
Feeling similar tranquility, Caris LeVert told Right Down Euclid that Game 1’s loss to the Knicks was also a bit of a feeling-out process for the Cavaliers. Sure, LeVert was held to 3 points on 1-7 shooting thanks, in part, to New York’s physicality. LeVert also said he had a lot of solid looks, but the shots weren’t falling for him due to finding his spots within the opposing defensive scheme. Nevertheless, how the Knicks manhandled Cleveland at times gave LeVert and his team perspective on how to attack and probe New York’s barrage, all while making minimal adjustments to maximize the opportunity to win.
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“I think a big thing was feeling it out for Game 1,” said LeVert to Right Down Euclid. “Feeling the elbows and some of the plays you don’t feel during the regular season. It’s kind of like just getting those reps, getting that experience and learning from it.”
To LeVert’s credit, the Cavaliers better understood the assignment after the first lesson from the School of Hard Knocks (Knicks?). No, it wasn’t a flawless turnaround for Cleveland in just two days. But, based on the minor adjustments Bickerstaff and his coaching staff made, like benching Ricky Rubio for Cedi Osman and Danny Green, along with the Cavaliers matching the Knicks in terms of physicality, Cleveland was able to find a way to win.
From the opening tip, this game, at least energy-wise, was also different. The Cavaliers made a concerted effort to limit the Knicks’ ability to get second-chance opportunities while keeping their rotation of big men in foul trouble. The Cavaliers held the Knicks to 13 offensive rebounds and 13 second-chance points (New York had 17 offensive rebounds and 23 second-chance points in Game 1). The Cavaliers also scored 32 points off 17 Knicks miscues, maintaining pressure and finding opportunities to stretch the lead continuously. Cleveland punched New York in the mouth right away and wouldn’t let up, giving the Knicks a taste of what it was like for them in Game 1.
New York being consistently rattled all game long led to easier offense for the Cavaliers as well. Garland was the headliner for Cleveland in this game, bouncing back from an ugly playoff debut with 32 points and seven assists. Joining Garland off the bench was LeVert, who showed his feeling out process was worth it, chipping in 24 points and outscoring the entirety of the Knicks’ reserves combined by himself.
After Game 1, the Cavaliers needed someone to meet Donovan Mitchell at the summit to make things easier for everyone. It required a few minor adjustments but, for now, it looks like Cleveland might’ve found a formula for success as this series shifts from Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse to Madison Square Garden. Things are far from over for the Cavaliers, but considering they’re currently tied up in this round with the Knicks, the calm after the storm was justified.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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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