RJ Barrett Credit: Bill Moore photo

After taking a 1-0 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers on the road in their best-of-seven NBA Eastern Conference playoff series, with a hard-fought 101-97 victory at the Rocket Mortgage Field House in Game 1 on Saturday, the Knicks were beaten decisively in Game 2 on Tuesday night by 107-90 and now return home to Madison Square Garden for Game 3 tomorrow night.(8:30 p.m.). Game 4 is onSunday afternoon (1 p.m.) at MSG. 

The Knicks began Game 2 by taking an early 13-6 lead and were up 22-21 with .48.1 seconds remaining in the first quarter, but that would be the last time they had an advantage on the scoreboard. Playing with expected urgency to avoid having to go to New York down 2-0 and face the monumental challenge of needing to win four of the next five games to reach the conference semifinals, the Cavaliers, who were the league’s top-rated defensive team during the regular season, suffocated the Knicks. 

The Cavaliers adroitly disrupted the Knicks’ offense by blitzing point guard Jalen Brunson, who was exceptional in Game 1, with two defenders and pressuring him full court, and prevented the Knicks from effectively executing their sets. They harassed the Knicks into missing 50 of their 79 shot attempts (36.7 percent), including 7-29 from behind the 3-point line (24.1 percent). Moreover, after the Knicks manhandled the Cavs on the glass on Saturday, out-rebounding them 51-38, Cleveland course-corrected and held a 43-36 margin in Game 2.

The Cavaliers also scored 26 points off 16 Knicks turnovers in Game 1 and had 32 on Tuesday as both teams had 18 miscues. 

“I thought the biggest thing was the ball pressure,” said Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau. “[Offensively], Garland got loose on us. Had a big first half. Mitchell made a number of good plays. When you look at it, we turned the ball over, so that was a big problem…The rebounding was a problem.”

Cavaliers point-guard Darius Garland dropped 26 of his game-high 32 points in the first half. His backcourt partner Donovan Mitchell, who scorched the Knicks for a game-high 38 points on Saturday, became a willing facilitator with a career-high 13 assists in Game 2, and reserve guard Caris LeVert contributed 24. 

“It’s the makeup of this group, again—being who we are and where we came from,” said Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff of his squad’s resilience in evening the series. “You don’t get to 51 wins if you can’t handle some adversity and bounce back. This league is too good.”

Nevertheless, the Knicks took away home court advantage from the Cavs going into Game 3 with a spirited win in Game 1, in which All-Star forward Julius Randle scored an encouraging 19 points and 10 rebounds in 33 minutes in his first game since suffering a sprained ankle on March 29. 

Forward Josh Hart provided the Knicks with invaluable intangibles off the bench, getting to 50-50 balls, menacing the Cavs out of their offensive rhythm, and putting up a game-changing 17 points, 10 boards, and a crucial 3-pointer with 1:49 remaining in the fourth quarter to give the Knicks a 95-93 lead.

Yet it was Brunson who was central to the Knicks’ victory. He overcame first-half foul trouble, playing just 9 minutes, and scored 21 of his 27 points in the second half. Cleveland had no solution to stop him, even when using multiple defenders who were all abused by the crafty shot creator, who netted a career-best 48 point against the Cavs on March 31. 

Conversely, their adjustments in Game 2 stymied Brunson. He finished with 20 laborious points and shot an uncharacteristic 5-17.  

“First and foremost, they played really well,” Brunson said of Cleveland. “We gotta come back Friday, stick together the next couple of days, and play well.”

The Knicks hope to get showings from RJ Barrett, who is struggling with his shot going 6-25, including 1-8 on 3-point attempts.

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