The week-long wait is finally over. It’s time for playoff basketball for the New York Knicks as they begin their first-round matchup against the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

What a season it has been for the New York Knicks. From changing the rotation early on in the season to witnessing history being made throughout every step of the season, it has been an unforgettable season for everyone involved. While a great regular season always deserves to be celebrated, it’s time for the Knicks to earn their stripes and turn some heads in the playoffs.

The last time the Knicks made the playoffs was in 2021 when they faced the Hawks in a relatively lopsided series victory for Atlanta. From point guard problems to overall team cohesion, it was evident that this Knicks team did not have what it takes in the postseason. Fast forward to now; New York has addressed the vast majority of their issues and is now once again in a position to make something happen. After being linked to New York native Donovan Mitchell all summer long, the Knicks will have the opportunity to eliminate him and send the Cavaliers home.

It certainly won’t be an easy series. Mitchell has had a career year, averaging 28.3 points on a 61.4 true shooting percentage, leading the Cavaliers to a 51-31 record, which is good for fourth in the Eastern Conference. Alongside Mitchell is Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen, and Evan Mobley, who are all integral pieces to this franchise and will garner heavy attention from the Knicks’ defense throughout this series.

For the fourth-seeded Knicks, Jalen Brunson has also had a career year, averaging 24.0 points on 59.7 shooting this season. After a breakout playoff run just last season, Brunson is prepared to do his due diligence once again, this time for the Knicks. While Brunson’s offensive play will be crucial to a Game 1 victory, his playmaking will be just as important as Cleveland will likely throw doubles his way, especially if Julius Randle sits out. Randle is currently questionable as he works his way back from an ankle injury. As far as the Knicks bench goes, they match up pretty well against Cleveland, and it could be a point of emphasis to utilize New York’s role players (Quentin Grimes, Josh Hart, etc.) in order to get the job done.

Will Julius Randle play in Game 1?

After suffering an ankle injury just weeks ago, Randle was assessed a two-week timetable to return to playing. We are now over the two-week mark and seeing a lot more progression from the All-Star, as he has practiced in recent days. As encouraging as it sounds, it’s important to note that he did not practice with any contact, meaning that he may not be back to 100% just yet. But as Adrian Wojnarowski reported yesterday, it appears that Randle will be a game-time decision and will test his ankle pregame for this evening’s affair.

As exciting as it is to get Randle back in the lineup just in time for the first round, you have to wonder whether it is the right move, especially since he practiced without any contact this week. Even without contact, it looks like Randle practiced at game speed, an encouraging piece of news. Regardless, the All-Star’s health in this series will be extremely important for New York to monitor. The last thing that the Knicks need is their best player suffering a season-ending injury.

If Randle plays, his shotmaking will be key to getting the Cavaliers defense out of sorts. His ability to space the floor and knock down the outside shot will force DPOY candidate Evan Mobley out of the paint, which could create offense for one of his teammates should the open three not be there off the catch. Having the dynamic duo of Brunson and Randle creates havoc for a Cavaliers defense that struggles to guard the perimeter as Mitchell and Garland pose as weak spots.

Although the Cavs’ perimeter defense is lackadaisical, this isn’t an excuse for the Knicks to shy away from driving to the basket. Contrary to their perimeter defense, Cleveland’s interior defense is phenomenal with two lanky big men in Mobley and Allen anchoring the inside. As difficult as it may seem trying to get up a shot within their vicinity, absorbing the contact and navigating the traffic will be crucial to drawing fouls, especially for Randle.

Averaging a career-high in free throw attempts this season, Randle is getting to the line as early and as often as anyone, using his strength and size to his advantage. While it may be difficult to draw fouls against some of the league’s premier interior defenders, Randle’s momentum driving downhill will force the officiating crew to blow their whistle. Getting Mobley and Allen into foul trouble will be essential, and the presence of Randle helps them game plan toward that immensely.

RJ Barrett must come to play

It’s been an interesting season for RJ Barrett. After averaging a career-high 20.0 points per game last season, he had to take the back seat to Brunson and Randle and, as the season has gone on, is now pitted as the fourth option in the Knicks offense. Although Barrett has had a fine season for the Knicks averaging 19.6 points, his consistency and efficiency out on the floor have been poor.

Sometimes, we don’t know what RJ Barrett we are getting on a night-to-night basis. Ideally in a matchup against Cleveland, Barrett should be aggressive in driving to the basket and find ways to get into the lane to create for himself and his teammates.On defense, he mustn’t gamble and play conservative defense, keeping his opponent in front of him as much as he can.

If he can play the way we know he’s capable of, then he will make Brunson and Randle’s lives much easier, considering they’ll likely have all eyes on them. Barrett is primed to get open looks all series, but whether he makes Cleveland pay will be the question. If Barrett can put it together alongside his teammates, who knows what’s in store for this Knicks team and how far they can go?

As underdogs in this series, each Knick player has something to prove to the rest of the league. Once overlooked heading into the season, the Knicks have played with a chip on their shoulder all season long, so this series will be no different. New York must find the energy and momentum early in this matchup against a Cleveland team who thrives on its home court.

Tip-off is at 6:00 p.m. EST on MSG and ESPN.

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