The last time the New York Knicks were in the playoffs, Trae Young shushed and bowed and promptly bounced them in five games. But entering the 2023 NBA Playoffs, this Knicks team feels different. For years, the Knicks have been in a weird half-space of trying to compete while simultaneously looking to make a major trade for a star; this year, though, the Knicks realized that they already have stars, with Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson combining to form one of the NBA’s best duos. Thanks to the franchise’s best team since 2013, the Knicks are a very serious threat to make it out of the first round of the 2023 NBA Playoffs and maybe go even farther than that. Here are the three biggest reasons why the Knicks will beat the Cavs.
3. Perimeter Defense
The Knicks are the rare team that has a stable of stout perimeter defenders to throw at Cleveland’s star guard duo of Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell. In fact, with Josh Hart, Quentin Grimes, Immanuel Quickley and, at times, RJ Barrett, the Knicks have as much perimeter defensive talent as any team in the league, even if they lack a single truly elite stopper like a Jrue Holiday or Marcus Smart. Although the Knicks as a team have a middling defense—114.8 defensive rating, 19th in the NBA—, they’re situationally very stout—whenever at least two of Hart, Quickley or Grimes are on the court, the Knicks play like an elite defense.
Against the Cavs, this kind of defensive effort is a necessity for the Knicks. While Mitchell and Garland are two of the most explosive guards in the NBA, they’re also Cleveland’s only reliably self-sufficient scoring options; the Cavs offense is only as good as the two of them allow for it to be. As such, the Knicks went 3-1 against the Cavs by stifling Garland. In Cleveland’s three losses to New York, Garland averaged 19.7 points and 6.0 assists on paltry 47.2 percent True Shooting, clearly bothered by the length and constant effort of the Knicks’ guards.
It sounds simple, but the Knicks are evidence of the powers of having good basketball players. Julius Randle, Jalen Brunson, Immanuel Quickley, Mitchell Robinson, Quentin Grimes, Josh Hart, Isaiah Hartenstein, Obi Toppin and RJ Barrett (kinda): a nine-man rotation that is essentially devoid of any major weaknesses or flaws. In this sense, the Knicks are the rare team that enters every game with a plausible path to victory; there’s no glaring schematic or personnel problem that the Knicks can’t solve by simply finding the right lineup combinations to solve it.
Randle and Brunson are the team’s two undeniable polar forces, but the Knicks’ true superpower comes from the ways that they support their stars. Every player in the rotation has a clear focus and role, allowing the Knicks to transcend their admittedly middle-of-the-road level of talent. Improbably, the Knicks had the fourth-best offensive rating of all time at 117.8 points per possession despite having just one All-Star on the roster. Whereas the Knicks made the playoffs in 2021 on the back of some defensive legerdemain and a Julius Randle-centric blunt force offense, they’re now in the 2023 NBA Playoffs because this year’s edition is legitimately good. Elfrid Payton has been swapped out for Jalen Brunson, a legitimate All-NBA candidate; steady vets like Reggie Bullock and Alec Burks have been supplanted by dynamic options like Grimes and hart; young guys like Mitchell Robinson and Immanuel Quickley have leveled up to an unexpected degree.
1. Star Power
In another world, this whole Knicks season would be haunted by the scepter of Donovan Mitchell—the Knicks wanted him, badly, but the Cavs swooped in and landed him from the Jazz. Instead, the Knicks were so good that any non-buyer’s remorse gradually receded away—when Randle and Brunson are playing like this, the prospect of adding Mitchell practically feels overly indulgent.
After the sourness and dourness of last year, Randle mustered up his odd year magic to put together another All-NBA level season, averaging 25.1 points, 10.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists and becoming one of the premier three-point threats in the league.
Similarly, Brunson has exploded in his first year with the Knicks, blossoming from Luka Doncic’s sidekick in Dallas to a high-usage star in his own right in New York. Since the start of 2023, Brunson has credibly been one of the four or five best guards in basketball, scoring 27.8 points on ludicrous 51.7 percent shooting from the field.
With Randle and Brunson, the Knicks have two devastating isolation scorers—whenever Randle or Brunson have the ball, defenses have to tilt themselves in that direction. In turn, this frees the rest of the Knicks’ supporting cast to charge through the resulting blindspots and cracks in the defense. This is the beauty of the Knicks—Randle and Brunson are so talented that they inherently create advantages which their teammates can expertly exploit.