After signing free-agent point guard Jalen Brunson to a lucrative deal this past summer, the Knicks were considered a favorite to land native New Yorker Donovan Mitchell in a trade with Utah, thus creating a mighty-mite backcourt capable of bringing some sizzle — and perhaps a long-awaited championship banner — to the Garden.
Instead, the Cavaliers swooped in out of nowhere, acquiring Mitchell to pair with a small, dynamic point guard of their own in Darius Garland. As fate would have it, the 47-35 Knicks will visit 51-31 Cleveland on Saturday night for the first game of a best-of-seven first-round playoff series between the Eastern Conference’s fourth and fifth seeds.
What would have been the knock on a Brunson-Mitchell pairing — that it’s too small defensively — is applicable in Cleveland, although the Cavaliers compensate for it with the NBA’s best pair of backline defenders in Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley.
“I definitely think it would have raised [the Knicks’] ceiling,” David Lieberman, lead NBA analyst for Caesars Sportsbook, said of the hypothetical Mitchell-Brunson pairing. “I’m not sure how far Cleveland can go with the Mitchell-Garland backcourt. Maybe that will give us an idea of how Brunson-Mitchell would have done.”
As it stands, Caesars has the Cavs as a -210 favorite to eliminate the Knicks (+175). The sportsbook expects a tightly contested series, with six or seven games the 2/1 co-favorites in the game total market, and Cavs in seven the +325 favorite in the correct series score market, followed by Cavs in five (+375) and either Cavs or Knicks in six (+450).
Betfred, bet365, Caesars, and PointsBet all consider Cleveland a 5.5-point favorite in Game 1, with only PointsBet (214.5 over/under) deviating from a 215-point total. Meanwhile, Caesars (-254) is the only mobile sportsbook among that quartet to offer something other than a -225 moneyline price on the Cavs.
Uncertainty around Randle
The Knicks won three out of four games against Cleveland during the regular season, including a 130-116 shootout on March 31 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in which Brunson scored 48 points to Mitchell’s 42. But the Cavs were without two of their defensive pillars in that game, with Allen and small forward Isaac Okoro sitting with minor injuries.
That said, the Knicks played without leading scorer and rebounder Julis Randle in that contest, and it’s still unclear when the All-Star power forward, who recently shed a walking boot to practice with the team, will return to game action. The uncertainty surrounding Randle’s ankle injury has played at least a minor role in Lieberman’s view of the Knicks’ chances to win the series.
“It plays a small part in the price,” he said. “It sounds like he’s not too far away, so if they can get him back by the time they go back home for Game 3, I don’t think it’ll preclude them from winning the series. Hopefully he’s healthy for most of the series and we can see both teams at full strength, because I’m not sure the Knicks can beat the Cavs with R.J. Barrett being their second go-to player.”
Providing bettors with more food for thought is the fact that the Knicks were one of just two playoff teams (Sacramento is the other) to post a better record on the road than at home during the regular season.
“The spread in Game 1 and their odds to win that game are reflective of how well they did on the road this season,” said Lieberman. “They can definitely steal one in Cleveland, and if they do that, the series price will definitely take a big turn.”
All the young Cavs
In assessing potential mismatches in the series, Lieberman zeroed in on the size of Cleveland’s backcourt, saying, “The small backcourt duo of the Cavs is probably the area to exploit, but I’m not sure the Knicks have the capability to exploit it. Brunson’s not super big either. It will be interesting to see how [Immanuel] Quickley plays. He’s a little bigger than both Mitchell and Garland. He’s quite a good defensive player and I assume he’ll be on Mitchell. If he can stop Mitchell and keep him in check, that’s probably the matchup I most want to see.”
When asked which Cleveland players he wouldn’t be surprised to see elevate their games on a roster shy on playoff experience, Lieberman responded, “Evan Mobley probably has the biggest ceiling to make a big impact on offense and defense. Obviously, Garland’s a great player as well, but Mitchell’s gonna have the ball in his hands quite a bit, especially in crunch time. I’ll be excited to watch the young Cavs players who finally have a chance to play in the playoffs.”
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