True grit: Cleveland Cavaliers dig deep but fall to New York Knicks 101-97

Grit will likely define the series for either the Knicks or the Cavaliers. But, Cleveland harnessed it and found a way to navigate things going forward.
CLEVELAND, OH – APRIL 15: Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks to pass the ball during the game against the New York Knicks during the 2023 Round 1 Game 1 NBA Playoffs on April 15, 2023 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)

Considering they’re a team with so little playoff experience, the Cleveland Cavaliers definitely looked like this was their first time out there. Early on, the New York Knicks hit Cleveland with plenty and jumped out to an early 30-24 lead at the end of the first quarter. Sure, things didn’t change much in the second quarter, or for most of the game considering the Knicks never truly relented the lead. But, by the time the final buzzer sounded, the Cavaliers found something they needed more than anything all throughout the game: grit.

Unfortunately, that grit was something Cleveland needed sooner rather than later. The Cavaliers fought all season long to secure home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The lack of initial intensity hit Cleveland hard and had them reeling for the remainder of the game. In fact, in a game featuring just six lead changes and eight ties, the Cavaliers trailed for 41 minutes. Thankfully, Rome isn’t burning with Moondog fiddling away. There’s still time to correct course and apply what worked down the stretch to the remainder of the series.

“This isn’t the end of the world,” Donovan Mitchell said. “It’s more people watching so you can lose one game at home and they can feel like the end of the world if you allow it. They came in there and took one from us, we’ve got to go get one right back. There’s no room to sit here and feel sorry or feel upset and get down. It’s one game. We will respond.”

Playing with grit and winning the scrap has been something Cleveland has made their ethos under Bickerstaff’s tenure as head coach. Leading up to Saturday’s game, Cavaliers big man Jarrett Allen compared it to responding to a sucker punch from an opponent. Well, the Knicks landed plenty of jabs and body shots on Cleveland all night. It sometimes forced some Cavaliers, like two-way star Evan Mobley, to wilt under pressure. But, for players like Mitchell, New York’s pressure just forced him to match the intensity.

Mitchell was all over the floor in this game for the Cavaliers. Known as a big-time playoff performer, Mitchell didn’t disappoint in his first foray with Cleveland – posting 38 points in many scoring. But, more than just Mitchell’s scoring made the difference for the Cavaliers. Mitchaell also had six assists resulted in 16 vital points for Cleveland or the several rebounds that resulted in multiple possessions. Mitchell was all over the floor for the Cavaliers in this game, putting his body on the line to try and find ways to lead his team to a win.

grit brunson
CLEVELAND, OHIO – APRIL 15: Jalen Brunson #11 of the New York Knicks passes between Evan Mobley #4 and Cedi Osman #16 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the fourth quarter of Game One of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on April 15, 2023 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Knicks defeated the Cavaliers 101-97. 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. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Mitchell’s play tonight can act as a catalyst for Cleveland and best exemplified the grit they needed to find going forward. But, it wasn’t just exclusive to Mitchell tonight. It had a trickle-down effect on the rest of the Cavaliers, which made this loss competitive until the final buzzer. It allowed Cleveland to roll with the punches (or multiple shots to the face in Isaac Okoro’s case) and make crucial hustle plays when it mattered the most. But, similarly to the regular season, it was an unfortunate case of too little, too late.

“Our guys are learning,” said head coach J.B. Bickerstaff following the loss. “We play a ton of guys a ton of minutes who are learning what playoff basketball is about. We’ve talked about it. You have to experience it to understand it. This was a lesson. We experienced it and we’ve got to bounce back from it and correct the things we can correct, which I think there was a lot of.”

Maybe it was the playoff jitters for the young, upstart Cavaliers. Maybe it was a needed feeling-out process since this series is a best-of-seven. Nevertheless, the Cavaliers could not match New York’s initial punch, getting off to a slow start and looking surprised by the Knicks’ playoff-level physicality. Sure, the grit Cleveland was able to harness heading into halftime may have to be what carries them through this opening series against New York. Of course, many things will start and finish with Mitchell’s heroics. But, as long as his teammates continue to try to meet him at the summit, things should be alright for the Cavaliers.

“We need to hit first and see how the refs react instead of being punched in the face and just laying down to it,” said Darius Garland postgame. “I think that’s the mentality that we have to have is go punch first and see what the refs have and see what they do, see if they’re going to blow the whistle, and set the tone of the game with it.”

Sure, Game 2 on Tuesday could be a completely different affair. Cleveland could come out guns blazing and smother the Knicks from three-point range. But, it could be the same as what happened in Game 1. That’s the beauty of the NBA postseason. Regardless of what happens next, the Cavaliers are saying all the right things and might’ve found what they need most to push them through the playoffs in their playoff debut.

True grit.

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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