NEW YORK — “There’s nothing better than a big game in the garden.”
Those were the words of New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau after his team took a 3-1 first-round series lead against the Cleveland Cavaliers with a 102-93 victory at a much-hyped Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon. Here are some notes, numbers and film as the series returns to Cleveland for Game 5 on Wednesday (7 ET, NBA TV).
1. Barrett on the attack
RJ Barrett is not the best finisher inside; his 51.2% shooting in the paint this season ranked him 179th among 204 players with at least 200 attempts. But that’s still much better than Barrett’s effective field goal percentage on shots from outside the paint: 43.9%, 198th among 212 players with at least 200 attempts from the outside.
But in Game 4, Barrett attacked early and often. The first play of the game was designed for Barrett to go down, with Jalen Brunson handing the ball off to a trailing Barrett, who then received a quick screen from Mitchell Robinson. Barrett took a half-step on Carris LeVert and didn’t stop until he reached the rim:
“It kind of set the tone for the rest of the game,” Barrett said of the first play. “We were all in attack mode.”
That’s a good thing, because the two teams combined to go 14-for-52 (27%) from 3-point range.
Several more times in that first quarter, Barrett made the same half-step on LeVert without the benefit of the screen. Barrett was 0-for-6 from outside the paint (all 3-point attempts), but still scored 26 points, shooting 9-for-12 in the paint and 8-for-13 at the line. His 18 points in the paint and 13 free throw attempts are the fourth most of his career.
The Knicks started the second half with the same play they did to start the first. This time, Darius Garland switched the handoff and iced Barrett to prevent him from using the Robinson screen. But the Knicks turned the screen, Jarrett Allen stepped up and Donovan Mitchell fouled Robinson after Barrett’s shot:
2. Winning basketball
The defensive game plan for both teams has generally been the same since the Cavs started attacking Brunson in Game 2. Both defenses have prioritized shutting down the opposing lead guard at the expense of leaving shooters open. But the Knicks have had more success with this strategy, mostly because they have fewer offensive responsibilities.
New York was very willing to leave Isaac Okoro open in the corner to help with more dangerous threats. Myles McBride left Okoro in the strong-side corner to draw a hit on Mitchell in the second quarter, and Okoro is now 2-for-10 on corner 3s in the series after going 1-for-5 in Game 4. Evan Mobley has also seemed shaky when invited to create his own shot.
“Everybody has to get to the right spots and then you have to make the right plays,” Thibodeau said of how to approach a defense that’s flashy or charging to the strong side. “Trust the game, trust your reads. Don’t fight it. Get off it, then move it to the backside and make plays from there. This is winning basketball. That’s the challenge.”
As noted above, the Knicks didn’t shoot well from the outside on Sunday, and Julius Randle killed off some possessions on his way to scoring just seven points on 3-for-10 shooting. But New York’s secondary has generally been better.
The Cavs had the league’s No. 1 defense in the regular season, but ranked 20th in defensive rebounding percentage (71.5%), and the Knicks’ 15.3 second-chance points per game against them were the most for any Eastern Conference opponent.
Mobley and Allen played together in just two of the four regular-season meetings, and the Cavs were a better defensive rebounding team (73.6%) when the two bigs were on the floor together. But even in 117 total minutes with the two on the floor in that series, Cleveland grabbed just 63.1 percent of available defensive rebounds, an anemic level.
The Cavs allowed 17 or more offensive rebounds four times in 82 regular season games and have already allowed 17 twice in this streak. The Knicks had 23 second-chance points in Game 1, and they had 21 more in Game 4, when the margin in second-chance points (21-12) was the same as the margin in total scoring (102-93). Robinson (7) and Obi Toppin (5) combined for 12 of the Knicks’ 17 offensive boards, but the game was sealed when 6-4 Josh Hart grabbed two in the final two minutes.
Through Game 4, the Cavs rank last in defensive rebounding percentage in the playoffs (62.7%).
4. The same action
There was a 12-possession stretch in the fourth quarter where both teams ran pick-and-rolls to the empty corner four of the six times they had the ball. As the Cavs attacked Brunson, the Knicks had Barrett field the ball, allowing him to pop to the corner and attack the rebounding defense:
It’s interesting how a playoff game will require actions/lineups/schemes that you haven’t seen much of in the regular season. In their 62 regular season games together, Barrett set exactly 62 ball screens for Brunson, according to Second Spectrum tracking. But in four games in that series, he scored 22 (5.5 per game).
On the other end of the court, the Cavs had Mobley setting the screen for Garland. The Knicks were quicker to bring help from the weak side, but that allowed Allen to shine up the middle of the paint:
5. The Cavs continue to struggle against the best
“Their net rating tells you they’re good,” Thibodeau said of Cleveland after the game.
Indeed, the Cavs ranked second in scoring margin per 100 possessions (+5.6) during the regular season and were one of three teams to rank in the top 10 on both ends of the floor.
But a lot of that was built in games against bad teams. Cleveland had the second-best record in the league (32-10) and its best point differential (+9.0 per game) against the 14 teams that finished at or below .500. And against the other 15 teams that had winning records, they were 19-21. Only three teams – the Thunder, Clippers and Nets – had a greater gap between their record against the bottom 14 and their record against the top 16.
The Knicks were 21-10 in games played between the 16 teams that finished above .500 and are now 3-1 in that series. They can close it on Wednesday.
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John Shuman is a senior statistical analyst for NBA.com. You can email him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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