Game 1 of the hotly anticipated Knicks–Cavs first round series is on Saturday, but it’s still hard to make any predictions given all the mystery and spycraft surrounding the teams. In this sense, the Knicks are keeping Julius Randle’s status on a strictly need-to-know basis; it’s easier to find out military state secrets than it is to discern the health and mobility of Randle’s sprained ankle. Still, it doesn’t look great for Game 1: as of Thursday afternoon, Randle had “taken part” in practice but had not yet been cleared for contact. While the Knicks’ larger playoff aspirations are contingent on Randle playing at an All-NBA level, the team has proven that they can ably tread water while he recovers. With or without Randle, the Knicks have the juice to upset the Cavs. Here are our Knicks Game 1 bold predictions.
1. New York Knicks point guard Jalen Brunson sets new playoff career-high
Jalen Brunson loves to be guarded by Donovan Mitchell more than most people love anything. To be sure, Mitchell is hardly a great defender against anyone, he’s historically never stood a chance against Brunson. When Brunson has the ball, Mitchell is cooked. He’s donezo; he’s food. Just a few weeks ago, Brunson hung 48 points on the Cavs, specifically targeting Mitchell on several fourth quarter possessions—by having Mitchell’s man screen for Brunson, the Knicks were able to force Mitchell to switch onto their star point guard. Similarly, during last year’s first round series between the Jazz and Mavericks, Brunson annihilated the Jazz. With Luka Doncic out for the first three games, Brunson dropped 24, 41 and then 31 points on Utah’s head to give Dallas to an unexpected 2-1 series.
The symmetry is undeniable. Same as last year, Brunson is facing Donovan Mitchell in a 4-5 first round matchup while his team’s star player is on an indefinite timetable to return. But unlike last year, Brunson isn’t going to stop at 41 points—it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him break 45, if not 50.
2. Josh Hart plays over 40 minutes for the first time with the New York Knicks
The true cost of Randle’s absence isn’t so much his offensive production (Brunson and Immanuel Quickley can shoulder the extra possessions without too much trouble) as it is his actual, physical absence. Besides Julius Randle, the Knicks don’t have many other Julius Randle-shaped bodies on the roster. Obi Toppin, the backup power forward, will surely draw the spot start if Randle misses Game 1, but his enthusiastic inattentiveness makes it hard to imagine him playing more than a few minutes at a time. As such, Josh Hart will become New York’s power forward by default. Even if the 6’5 Hart is seven inches shorter than Evan Mobley, he has the gumption and gusto to succeed in this role. Namely, Hart is nearly Mobley’s equal as a rebounder, grabbing just 1.3 fewer boards per 100 possessions than the Cavs’ big.
Beyond simply filling in as Randle’s understudy, Hart is a malleable, trustworthy player—he can spell Grimes as an ace wing defender or assume some secondary playmaking duties from Quickley. More, the Knicks rotation is a suddenly rickety place without Randle, especially with RJ Barrett mired in one of his prolonged nosedives. Right now, the Knicks can depend on Brunson, Quickley, Quentin Grimes, Josh Hart, Mitchell Robinson, and Isaiah Hartenstein, but that’s about it.
3. Thibs benches RJ Barrett in the fourth quarter
It would be a bummer to see Barrett excised from the rotation, but it’s also quickly becoming a necessity. In his current form, he’s bad. More damning, though, is that he’s not just bad in an overarching sense; he’s bad at just about every individual thing. A non-exhaustive summary of things Barrett is bad at: shooting (31 percent from three), passing (24th percentile in assist:usage ratio), finishing (56.9 percent at the rim, good for the bottom quartile of the NBA), defense (-1.6 defensive EPM, the worst of the Knicks’ real minute-getters) and chemistry (every single Knick has a dramatically better on/off rating without him on the floor).
In short, it’s pretty bleak.
In the regular season, the Knicks can indulge Barrett more—they’re so heavily invested in him that it’s worth giving him the time and space to develop as a player even if it doesn’t help the team win in any given game. The playoffs, though, demand constant vigilance. Winning is so important now that you no longer have the luxury to focus on any secondary or tertiary concerns—there’s a real cost to giving RJ Barrett 34 minutes per game. In 2021, Thibodeau made the tough choice to bench point guard Elfrid Payton in the playoffs against the Hawks. In 2023, he’ll eventually reach that same conclusion
4. The New York Knicks beat the Cavs by seven points
When the Knicks play their best players, they’re practically unstoppable. It’s not too bold of a prediction to assume the Knicks will play their best players in Game 1.
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