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A little less than a year ago, the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers were competing on a very different stage. The Utah Jazz had made All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell available for a trade, and the Knicks were widely expected to land the New York native. The two sides negotiated for over a month without a deal coming to fruition. Eventually, the Cavs swooped in and landed the shooting guard of their dreams.

It worked out for both sides, in the end. Mitchell led the Cavaliers to their first LeBron James-free playoff appearance in 25 years. Another offseason acquisition, Jalen Brunson, led the Knicks back into the playoffs after only a one-year absence. Now the two of them are set to square off again, only this time, their battle will take place on the court.

The overwhelming consensus entering the Eastern Conference postseason is that the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers are championship contenders. Everyone else is just cannon fodder. Well, the winner of this series gets a shot at the Bucks in the second round, and with it, a chance to prove that they belong in the conversation with any team the Eastern Conference has to offer. But who will get that chance? Here's everything you need to know about Cleveland's first-round series against New York. 

(4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (5) New York Knicks

Knicks lead series 3-1

All times Eastern

  • Game 1 (at CLE): Knicks 101, Cavaliers 97
  • Game 2 (at CLE): Cavaliers 107, Knicks 90
  • Game 3 (at NYK): Knicks 99, Cavaliers 79
  • Game 4 (at NYK): Knicks 102, Cavaliers 93
  • Game 5* (at CLE): Wednesday, April 26 | TBD | TV: TBD
  • Game 6* (at NYK): Friday, April 28 | TBD | TV: TBD
  • Game 7* (at CLE): Sunday, April 30 | TBD | TV: TBD

*If necessary

Top storylines

1. Is Randle ready?

As of this writing, Julius Randle is a game-time decision for Game 1 with a sprained left ankle. That's concerning on a number of levels. Obviously, the Knicks would prefer to have arguably their best player at full strength, but this is an important series for Randle in particular considering what happened the last time he reached the postseason. In a five-game loss to the Atlanta Hawks, Randle shot 29.8% from the field and was held below 20 points three times.

He was guarded by De'Andre Hunter and Atlanta's No. 18 ranked defense in that series. Now he's going up against Defensive Player of the Year candidate Evan Mobley and the No. 1 ranked Cleveland defense. A healthy Randle actually presents a very interesting matchup against the Cavaliers. If Mobley has a defensive weakness—and that's a mighty sized "if"—it's against bigs who can play bully ball against him. Randle fits the bill. The Knicks are comfortable letting Randle handle the ball and attack almost anyone, and he's got about 35 pounds on the 21-year-old Mobley.

These aren't the 2021 Knicks. They have supplementary ball-handling, and they actually shoot 3-pointers now. New York doesn't need Randle to average 30 to win this series. But they're going to lose it if he shoots 30% from the floor again. The Knicks need something close to Randle's typical performance if they plan to score consistently against the NBA's best defense. Right now, it just isn't clear if he'll be able to give them that.

2. Mitchell vs. Brunson, Round 2

It would hardly be an exaggeration to suggest that Jalen Brunson ended the Donovan Mitchell era in Utah last season. With Luka Doncic injured before their first-round series, the Jazz were expected to waltz right past the Mavericks into the second round. And then Brunson thoroughly outplayed Mitchell across a six-game series that ended with Dallas advancing. Brunson averaged just under 28 points per game against Utah, and fittingly, he scored plenty of them against Mitchell, who played some of the worst defense of his life against the Jazz.

He's been a far better defender in Cleveland, and he also has two elite defensive big men behind him instead of just one. His All-Star backcourt mate is significantly younger this time around, and he will have home-court advantage in this matchup. In other words, if Mitchell is treating this series as a grudge match with Brunson, almost everything that worked against him last season is now in his favor.

Knicks fans have little reason to regret missing out on Mitchell. He may be better than Brunson, but the gap isn't as wide as it looked over the summer, and the Knicks have retained maximum flexibility to improve elsewhere on the roster. The one major downside for the Knicks is that by not trading for Mitchell, they opened themselves up to the possibility of having to play against him. That worst-case outcome presented itself right away. If Mitchell has any bitterness towards Brunson or the team he assumed he'd play for, he's going to show it in this series.

3. Cleveland's wing problem

Cleveland has two star guards in Mitchell and Darius Garland. It has two star big men in Mobley and Jarrett Allen. It's just that pesky in-between slot that's been a problem for them all season. Isaac Okoro has largely been the preferred starter in that position. Caris LeVert frequently closes. Cedi Osman and Lamar Stevens have had their turns as well. There's no perfect balance. The Cavaliers would love someone who can at least make corner 3's and defend wings credibly. None of their role players do both consistently.

Fortunately, the Knicks aren't especially dangerous on this front. They have done have an array of wing scorers ready to punish LeVert or Osman, and Cleveland should be able to score comfortably enough even in clogged lanes. That makes this series something of a trial run for the Cavaliers. They're going to experiment with that slot. Okoro will likely get the first crack at it for the sake of defending Brunson, but don't be surprised to see several different Cavaliers try out for that role. 

Series Pick

If Randle was at 100% this series would be a bit more interesting. As it stands, the Cavaliers have the best offensive player in this series (Mitchell), the best defensive player in this series (Mobley), and statistical advantages in most categories. Expect the Cavaliers to move on to the second round in five or six games. Pick: Cavaliers in six