Something’s Heating Up!

This past Christmas, I was in Oklahoma with my oldest, not older, brother, taking in several of the NBA games that were on TV. They were there at my request, but several of our fellow patrons got into it; suffice to say, we identified a Kobe Guy. Two days later we would be at Paycom watching a Thunder-Spurs game that you’ve already forgotten; I doubt we ever will.

For what ended up being my family’s ad hoc Christmas celebration three months later, we descended upon South Carolina, my parents once again hosting a St. Patrick’s Day party featuring a lot of people I don’t know that well. One of them, a New Jersey transplant and lapsed Knicks fan, unfortunately found herself in a conversation with me, all but yelling at her about Jalen Brunson. 

I told her that, with all due respect to Julius Randle, he was a reason to get back on board with the Knicks, something I had never really expressed in earnest to anyone as an adult. On Wednesday night, Brunson and company validated that, closing out a first round series win over the Cleveland Cavaliers and setting up a throwback series in which blood has historically been a constant presence.

By the time I received the text notification, it felt like nothing: instead of returning to New York, Donovan Mitchell found himself traded to the Cavs, a team ripe for exactly the kind of playmaking and audacious shot-taking (as well as being equipped with the players and draft capital to grease some wheels) that it had been lacking since you-know-who took his talents west.

To his and the Cavs’ institutional credit, Mitchell rewarded them immediately with the best individual season of his career, as well as the team’s best record since 2017. He scored 71 points against the Bulls on January 2nd. It felt like he wanted to prove a point.

To whom? Well: the Knicks caught their breath, for once, at the prospect of giving up a boatload of assets for a star – a proven star, but certainly one with limitations. Could he grow? Sure, of course, but the Knicks had enough in the cupboard with at least the whispers of that exact temptation so as not to let that empty them out, even after getting Brunson in free agency. The Cavs moved, and for most of the regular season, it looked like they made the right call.

It would’ve been [REDACTED], before all of that, to pair Brunson with Mitchell, a player he’d summarily dressed down in a different conference playoff series less than a year ago. As it stood, the Cavs made out well: Mitchell’s pick-and-roll partnerships with both of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley (he’s 21, by the way) had enough juice to keep defenses guessing; combining that with shared playmaking duties with Darius Garland resulted in some of the most exciting transition offense *and* halfcourt sets the league had to offer this season. At times, it started to feel like Portland 2.0, but with two versatile bigs instead of one.

The Cavs are good; for now, their only worry should be to continue developing the players they have. Calls for blowing it up after one playoff series together are maybe premature. As they proved time and again this season, they have a distinct style and enough skill to break the best teams. 

It was, then, only fitting that the Knicks and Cavs should meet in a 4-5 series, both teams surprisingly early to a party that they were eventually planning on throwing. The spectre of Mitchell hung over New York[1] all season, spurred on by the likes of alleged Knicks fan Stephen A. Smith, who took every opportunity he could to bash the Knicks for failing to obtain the Elmont native. Ridiculous! Trade exceptions, pick swap rights, things of that nature. 

Ever so slightly, the series did have the feeling of a revenge tour. Mitchell going “why don’t they want me man,” putting up 38 a game and closing out New York in five would’ve felt exactly like every other breath of hope for Knicks fans over the past two-plus decades. 

But then, Mitchell Robinson, healthy for the first Knicks playoff run of his career, decided to remind people why he was drafted in the first place: all over the glass, he averaged 9.8 rebounds in the five games against Cleveland, including 5.8 offensive boards per game. Steven Adams led the league this year in that category, with 5.1; Robinson was second at 4.5.

After netting 38 in Game 1, Mitchell was relatively quiet, averaging 19.5 points on a little less than 42% shooting and an abysmal 24% from three over the remaining four games. Garland, already equipped with a knack for the spotlight, fluttered, the star of Cleveland’s Game 2 victory and almost absent elsewhere. Robinson got to Allen and Mobley, both of whom were just too thin to stop him. When the time comes, size remains everything in the NBA. 

Brunson, on the other hand, became everything and more for the Knicks. Following a year in which he averaged career highs in points, assists, steals, blocks, free throw attempts (and makes) and three-point percentage, the Knicks point guard – and New Jersey native – went for 24 per game on an offensive rating of +11 and 53% true shooting. His Broadway-worthy steps in the low post solicited comparisons to none other than Hakeem Olajuwon from ESPN’s Tim Bontemps. The reviews were good, is all I’m saying.

When Julius Randle re-aggravated the ankle injury that had ruined the last part of his regular season, everyone else stepped up: the embattled RJ Barrett had 21 in the closeout Game 5, Immanuel Quickley contributed 19 after an underwhelming start to his playoffs and Obi Toppin performed admirably as Randle’s replacement, submitting 12 points (and one immediately immortalized breakaway dunk).

All the while, Robinson was putting in work: his Game 5 totals had 13 points and 18 rebounds, including 11 of New York’s 17 offensive rebounds to the Cavs’ 4. That was, obviously, key: in the decisive game, Cleveland outpaced the Knicks in field goal percentage, three-point percentage, free throws and assists, yet could not do anything with Robinson on the boards. 

In the series, the Knicks out-rebounded the Cavs on the offensive glass, 35% to 23% (in Game 5, it was an even more striking 39% to 11%). Relatedly, New York had 18.2 second chance points to Cleveland’s 11.0. More than any of Brunson’s twisted cuts or Barrett’s redemptive shotmaking, this told the story of the series. The Cavaliers, Mitchell and the rest, retain the future they were promised, but this offseason could contain multitudes.

For fans of a certain vintage which I do not readily possess, the New York Knicks facing the Miami Heat in the playoffs means rattling open wounds from a pre-Dolan time. Oh, Pat Riley was there, after that memo, and there he remains, nearly three decades later. 

Also there, in Miami, is Jimmy Butler, whose ridiculous playoff performances over the years had already garnered Playoff Jimmy praise before he knocked off the 1-seed Milwaukee Bucks in the first round after making it out of the play-in. Butler is not one to let his team lose on any given night; the Heat’s run to the NBA Finals in the 2020 bubble is one of the all-time great singlehanded performances by any player, immortalized by a photo that captures its moment’s zeitgeist as aptly as any other in history, sports or otherwise.

Even so, the Heat are the lower seed, the Knicks somehow hosting a playoff series beyond the first round. Another Madison Square Garden sporting tenant has not done so well with those duties in recent-yet-plural decades, but maybe these Knicks have exactly the combination of talent, cunning and naivete to pull this off and make one of the weirdo, surprise conference finals runs we’ve seen in recent years (i.e., like those of the Mavericks, Blazers and, yes, the Heat, though all of those teams were presumed to be better than these Knicks).

Playoff-experienced and clearly unbothered with expectation, the Miami Heat present many of the same strengths that the Knicks would bring to any other team. Whether either team has enough to then go on and challenge the winner of the impending series between the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics, the remaining toastmasters of the East, is for another campfire. For now, let’s savor this, an update on an old rivalry. 

The player empowerment era was supposed to produce parity; it gave us a series of two of the most heralded franchises in the NBA, though one lacks any recent track record deserving of that praise, and neither was expected to be here. Sounds like a party.

[1] Not Brooklyn, to be precise; they had well-publicized demons of their own.


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