Knicks center Mitch Robinson Credit: Bill Moore photo

Donovan Mitchell had hope. That’s what the Cleveland Cavaliers’ four-time NBA All-Star and his teammates held onto when they went into Game 5 of their best-of-seven first-round playoff series last night (Wednesday) in their home arena, the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, looking to avert playoff elimination. 

The Knicks, the Eastern Conference’s No. 5 postseason seed, had imposed their will and force on the No. 4 seed Cavaliers for a 3–1 lead and the prospect of reaching the conference semifinals for the first time since 2012-2013 season, when the loss to the Indiana Pacers 4–2. 

“If you need any more motivation than this, then I don’t think you’re playing the right sport or should be playing sports,” asserted Mitchell on Tuesday. “If this elimination game doesn’t fire you up to protect home court on your own floor, then I don’t know what else could get you going.”

The Westchester County, New York, native made the decisive comment after an uncharacteristically meager performance in Game 4 at Madison Square Garden this past Sunday. Mitchell’s shot was off-target as he missed 13 of 18 attempts, including going 0-4 on 3-pointers for 11 points as the Knicks continued to impose their force and will on the Cavaliers in a 102–93 victory.

“It’s a no-brainer for me to own that,” Mitchell said in acknowledging his well-below-standard showing. “It’s ot to be there at that moment, and I wasn’t…I’ve just got to find a way to be there in Game 5 and win the game.”

The glaring distinction between the Knicks and Cavaliers in the four games before last night was the former’s physical dominance and boundless intensity that the latter failed to match. It was no more telling than in the rebound disparity. The Knicks held a 179–158 advantage overall and 58–42 margin on the offensive glass with center Mitchell Robinson as the fulcrum. The 7-foot fourth-year pro had 18 total offensive boards leading into Game 5. 

“We just play hard, you know. They’ve got two seven-footers out there, so we just take what we can, put in more effort, and we got the job done,” said Robinson after Game 4. 

“The rebounding has been huge and I think that it’s been critical for us and one of our strengths all year long,” said Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau. “We have to continue to do that—it’s a big part of winning. Keeping our turnovers down—we need to do better with that. The defensive rebounding is huge.” 

“We keep talking about it, we keep talking about it, we keep talking about it,” repeated Cavaliers head coach Bernie Bickerstaff Jr. regarding his team’s rebounding troubles. “You learn when it will hurt the most. We’ve been talking about our success, going as quickly as we learn from our mistakes. In these three games, we haven’t learned quickly enough, and they made us pay.”

Defensively, the Knicks have been relentless in guarding the Cavaliers with an exceeding amount of force, with the exception of a 107–90 Game 2 defeat. They have been able to sustain pressure on the Cavs in halfcourt sets, in large part due to their bench superiority. Thibodeau has adeptly activated and employed his reserves, spearheaded by forward Josh Hart, while Cavaliers Bickertaff has limited resources and is essentially going to battle with a seven-man rotation, which has caused his starters to carry heavy workloads. 

As Knicks point guard Jalen Brunson had his way with the Cavaliers in Game 3, posting a 24.3 scoring average in Games 1 through 4, All-Star forward Julius Randle—the team’s regular season leader in points per game (25.1) and rebounding (10.0)—is noticeably still not fully recovered from an ankle sprain that happened on March 29 at the Garden in a game versus the Miami Heat. He sat out the Knicks’ final regular season contest and did not return until April 15, Game 1 of the playoffs. 

Randle’s numbers reflect his physical obstacles. He was putting up 14.8 points on 21–65 shooting (32.3%) and 8–31 (25.8%) from behind the 3-point line and only seven rebounds per outing over four games. 

After having little positive offensive impact in Games 1 and 2, shooting 6–25 and 1–8 on 3-pointers, forward RJ Barrett experienced a resurrection. He came back with 19 points on 8–12 attempts in Game 3 and 26 points in Game 4. 

“Super-aggressive, you know, going downhill, getting to the line,” said Thibodeau of Barrett’s work on Sunday. 

“I think a lot of the time, they were doubling Jalen, so I was able to get the ball and make some plays,” Barrett assessed. “ I was able to get into some sets, and it was a total team effort.” 

If necessary, Game 6 will be at the Garden tomorrow night and Game 7 in Cleveland.

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