Few NBA teams this season are better suited for a home-and-home series than the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers, who have been intricately linked for the past 16 months.
The familiar foes will renew acquaintances Tuesday night when the Cavaliers host the Knicks in the first of consecutive meetings between the Eastern Conference rivals. New York will host the rematch on Wednesday.
Both teams have been off since losing the second game of a back-to-back set on Saturday, when the visiting Knicks fell to the New Orleans Pelicans 96-87 and the host Cavaliers were defeated by the Indiana Pacers 125-113.
This week’s games will be the first between the Knicks and Cavaliers since New York defeated Cleveland in five games in an Eastern Conference first-round series in April.
That victory validated the Knicks’ moves in the summer and early fall of 2022, when they signed Jalen Brunson to a four-year deal July 12, 2022, and then didn’t acquire Donovan Mitchell, a native of nearby Westchester County. The rebuilding Utah Jazz sent Mitchell to the Cavaliers Sept. 3, 2022.
Brunson averaged 24.0 points and 6.2 assists per game in the regular season before averaging 24.0 points and 4.8 assists in the first-round series. Mitchell averaged 28.3 points per game and 4.4 assists per game during the regular season and then averaged 23.2 points and 7.2 assists during the playoffs.
The brief nature of Cleveland’s first LeBron James-less visit to the playoffs since 1997-98 stung the Cavaliers. Swingman Isaac Okoro told the New York Post he rooted for the Miami Heat when they beat the Knicks in the second round.
“We definitely want to get this win and put it on them,” Cavaliers forward Evan Mobley said. “So we’re definitely getting prepared and ready for that game.”
Mitchell is expected to return Tuesday after sitting out Saturday’s game with a sore hamstring.
The Knicks, who have adopted Brunson’s stoic tunnel vision, don’t appear to have extra motivation while preparing to face the Cavaliers and Mitchell again, especially after enduring an inconsistent first three games and preparing for another back-to-back set.
“That’s the big challenge of the league — it requires you to be in great shape,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said Saturday night. “It requires you to be mentally tough. You’re going to be challenged each and every night.”
New York shot 44.7 percent from the 3-point line and committed 25 turnovers in the first two games, a span in which it shot just 63 percent from the free-throw line. The Knicks were better from the line on Saturday (14 of 18) but shot just 19 percent (7 of 37) from 3-point land while turning the ball over 18 times.
“I think that’s why we have 82 games,” Knicks swingman RJ Barrett said. “Get everybody back in rhythm, everybody back in the flow.
“Make the mistakes early. All teams are doing that.”