In their very first possession of Game 1, Evan Mobley fired a floater through some contact from Mitchell Robinson. The shot missed but Mobley got the offensive rebound and went up strong for a one-handed flush over Robinson.
That’s the kind of force that everyone expected the Cleveland Cavaliers to bring in the first game of the series against the New York Knicks. The Cavs are the best defensive team in the league. They’re used to bullying teams around, pounding them into submission with their unrelenting defensive intensity.
Unfortunately for Cleveland, that play by Mobley wasn’t the defining play of the game. This game was defined by the next play by the New York Knicks.
Unfazed by the Mobley highlight, Jalen Brunson went to work. He took Isaac Okoro off the dribble, gave him a little bump and fired a floater over the outstretched hands of Jarrett Allen. That play may have looked simple but that’s how Brunson took over the game in the third quarter.
Brunson repeatedly went to work on Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell or any other guard that the Cavs put on him. He backed them down, put his shoulder onto their bodies, and played physical against them on the offensive end. Brunson capped off a run to help the Knicks build a nine-point lead in the third with a bump and fader over Mitchell.
Because none of their guards could handle him, the Cavaliers put a bigger defender on Brunson in the fourth period. Cedi Osman tried his best to handle Brunson but he too failed when Brunson scored a clutch basket over him in the final minutes of the game.
Brunson bullying the Cavaliers into changing their defensive game plan showed how Cleveland allowed themselves to get bullied by New York all game long.
The Cavaliers weren’t assertive on offense, setting for the outside shot too much. Only Mitchell had it going from beyond the arc, hitting six of the team’s 10 made triples in the game. But he also needed to take 16 of their 31 attempts to get those makes. In contrast, the Knicks made less threes in the game but also put a more concerted effort to get to their spots on the floor and take shots that they were more comfortable with.
Cleveland was also pushed around on the inside. They were outrebounded 51-38 and managed to block only two shots in the game. That is a major issue that the Cavaliers have to address this series. The Knicks are the third-best rebounding team in the league, while the Cavs rank 25th in rebounding. They can’t allow New York to dominate them on the boards because that gives the Knicks, one of the best scoring teams in the league, the power to dictate how the game will be played
This wasn’t the typical bully ball that fans are used to. The Knicks didn’t grind down the Cavs with repeated post plays. Rather, they worked patiently to get to their spots and used their skills to get buckets. It was a slow grind, rather than a hard one. The result was the same. The Cavs folded, ceding home court advantage to the Knicks.