The NBA Playoffs: Looking Forward for New York Sports

Playing the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Philadelphia 76ers, the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets look toward the playoffs, each presented with difficult matchups and significant challenges to overcome.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

After years of disappointing performances from New York basketball teams, playoff basketball is back in the Big Apple. After 82 games, both New York teams have had impressive seasons, as the New York Knicks finished with the fourth seed and the Brooklyn Nets finished with the sixth seed. Playing the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Philadelphia 76ers, respectively, the Knicks and Nets look towards the playoffs, each presented with difficult matchups and significant challenges to overcome. 

New York Knicks

Following missing the playoffs last season, the New York Knicks have bounced back to the fifth seed, finishing with a 47-35 record. Their first-round matchup against the fourth seed Cleveland Cavaliers has provided them with a competitive battle. Despite Cleveland being the higher seed, the series had been expected to be a toss-up between the teams, as both were lauded throughout the season for their defense and offensive firepower, primarily from Knicks point guard Jalen Brunson and Cavaliers shooting guard Donovan Mitchell. While there is a lot for the Knicks to celebrate with their series win in five games, there are still key issues that cannot be overlooked. The road to the NBA championship will only become more difficult with teams such as the Miami Heat facing them in future rounds, so the Knicks need to capitalize on the momentum they have now.

The Knicks started off the series showcasing Coach Tom Thibodeau’s signature hustle-heavy style of play as they outrebounded the Cavaliers 51-38, of which 17 of the Knicks’ were offensive rebounds––enabling continuous second-chance opportunities. This rebound dominance proved crucial near the end of the game, when Knicks point guard Brunson missed a fading midrange shot. Power forward Julius Randle hustled to grab the offensive rebound, forcing the Cavaliers to foul with mere seconds left, down 99-97. “You can’t say enough about the monster rebound Julius made at the end. That was a monster play,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. Thanks to the hustle plays and rebounding made throughout the game, the Knicks were able to secure the win in Game One, 101-97.

In Game Two, Cavaliers point guard Darius Garland led the team in scoring with 32 points on 47 percent from the field and 60 percent from the three-point line. “I watched the film from the first game and seeing some opportunities where I can go get mine and go be aggressive and that’s what I just tried to do,” Garland said. Garland took advantage of mismatches throughout the game, as he frequently called for screens from Cavaliers bigs Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. Garland often sped past the Knicks bigs switching onto him for open pull-up three-point shots. On defense, the Knicks often seemed unsure of who to guard, often double-teaming Mitchell or Garland as they attempted to shoot, leaving key shooters such as guard Caris LeVert open for three-pointers. The Cavaliers shot 14-33 from three, with LeVert having 24 points off the bench. The Cavaliers, who led the league in defensive rating this season, were able to hold the Knicks to just 36.7 percent from the field and 24.1 percent from three. The lack of coordination on defense by the Knicks and stifling defense by the Cavaliers led the Cavaliers to close Game Two with a 107-90 win.

The Knicks, back home in Madison Square Garden, made full use of home-court advantage. Knicks shooting guard RJ Barrett came alive in this game with 19 points, including three key three-pointers. Barrett, who had been in a slump for the past two games, focused more on his shot selection. Throughout the game, Randle recognized his struggles from the field, and drove to the paint, continuously leaving Barrett open for threes. The Knicks defense overwhelmed the Cavaliers, and Garland struggled this game, shooting 4-21 from the field and 1-7 from three. Garland, among other Cavaliers players, often attempted to get the Cavaliers bigs involved while they posted up in the paint, which the Knicks quickly realized and took advantage of, often double-teaming Allen and Mobley in the paint or intercepting passes for fastbreak layups and dunks. The Knicks executed their game plan perfectly, en route to a dominant 99-79 win.

Coming off their momentum from Game Three, the Knicks hoped to gain another win in Madison Square Garden before leaving for Cleveland. Similar to Game One, the Knicks’ primary strength was rebounding, where they were able to grab 17 offensive rebounds this game, with five players on the Knicks getting five or more rebounds this game. This was partly due to the energy of the Knicks’ bench led by younger players such as forward Obi Toppin. Coach Thibodeau, who noticed the lackluster energy both on offense and defense from Randle in the third quarter, benched him in favor of Toppin, who immediately came into the game determined to make an impact. Toppin’s high vertical and athleticism allowed him to steal rebounds from the fatigued Cavaliers bigs and set himself open for corner three-pointers and even an alley-oop from veteran point guard Derrick Rose. “Our rebounding today was big…I was a lot more physical today,” Toppin said. The Cavaliers defense of blitzing Brunson also was stifled by RJ Barrett’s willingness to attack at the rim, leading to possessions where the double teaming of Brunson would lead to open lanes for Barrett to drive for layups. Barrett, who ended the game with 26 points, as well as other players’ contributions on both ends of the court led to a Knicks win, 102-93.

In a decisive Game Five, the Knicks made sure to prevent a repeat of Game Two in Cleveland. Despite Randle suffering a left ankle injury that forced him to miss the second half, the rest of the Knicks more than made up for his absence. Once again, Knicks center Mitchell Robinson and guard Josh Hart dominated the glass, combining for 30 rebounds. Throughout the game, the Knicks bigs proved to be threats on both sides of the court. Whether it was via putback dunks, alley-oop dunks, blocks, or rebounds, Robinson and Knicks backup center Isaiah Hartenstein forced the Cavaliers defense to gravitate toward them, giving guards Jalen Brunson and Immanuel Quickley open lanes to drive or shoot. Due to as dominant a performance as the Knicks have produced thus far, they were able to close out the series in Game Five 106-95.

Brooklyn Nets

After starting the season with a 27-13 record, highlighted by a 12-game winning streak, it seemed that Nets’ fans would get to watch superstars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant play a whole season together. However, Durant would go down with an MCL injury, forcing him to miss many games, and soon after that, Irving would request a trade. After Irving’s blockbuster trade, Durant’s request for a trade followed. Led by a new face of young talent, featuring Mikal Bridges, Nic Claxton, Cam Thomas, and Ben Simmons, the team would finish with a 45-37 record, good enough for the sixth seed in the East that pitted them against the Philadelphia 76ers. Led by a team of MVP candidate Joel Embiid, guard James Harden, and forward Tobias Harris, the matchup was always going to be difficult for the young, inexperienced Nets.

The 76ers started the series with a 121-101 win that saw them take full advantage of the Nets’ inexperience. The 76ers were able to capitalize on the 19 turnovers that the Nets committed––while forcing 14 steals–– and were able to maintain a lead for the entirety of the game. The Sixers would also out-rebound the Nets, leading to more second-chance baskets, a trend that would continue for the entirety of the series. Despite an incredible 30-point- performance from Bridges, the rest of the team struggled offensively. Harden’s 23 point, 13 assist double-double, as well as Embiid’s 26 point game, proved to be too much for the Nets to handle in Game One. 

The next game was no different, as the 76ers won again, 96-84. Led by Cameron Johnson’s 28 points and five three-pointers made, the Nets outscored the Sixers in the first half. To close off the first half, Johnson drove down the right side of the court, and confronted Embiid at the rim with a posterizing dunk, leaving the 76ers home crowd in disbelief. “I don’t remember getting dunked on,” Embiid said after the game. However, Embiid would get back at Johnson. In the fourth quarter, Johnson attempted to finish a drive on Harden, but Embiid disallowed him with a monstrous block, shifting the momentum to favor the Sixers––and the Nets were never able to recover. Twenty point double-doubles from both Embiid and Harris, compounded by Tyrese Maxey’s 33 points, simply overpowered the Nets.

Game three took the series back to Brooklyn, and the Nets’ playoff home opener featured technical fouls and ejections galore, en route to an eventual 102-97 loss. Less than three minutes into the game, Claxton finished an alley-oop, sending Embiid to the floor. Claxton, trying to step over Embiid, was kicked in the groin, sending him to the floor as well. The altercation resulted in a level one flagrant foul on Embiid as well as a technical foul on Claxton. In a separate play in the third quarter, Harden attempted a step-back move on Royce O’Neale, but ended up elbowing O’Neale in the groin––resulting in a level two flagrant foul on Harden, immediately ejecting him from the game. In the fourth quarter, Claxton would get his revenge on Embiid with a massive dunk over the Sixers’ MVP candidate. However, Claxton’s excessive celebration and taunting resulted in a second technical foul, ejecting Claxton from the game. Through all the altercations, Sixers guard Maxey was able to shine again, dropping a team-high 25 points with five three-pointers and great efficiency. Bridges’s 26 points led the Nets, though he struggled with staying efficient, only making nine shots from the field in 26 shot attempts. The deciding factor of the game came back full circle to Embiid. With the Nets down by two with less than 10 seconds left, Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie drove the ball to the basket. However, he was met by Embiid who blocked the layup and would close out the victory for the Sixers.

After losing Embiid to injury in game three, the 76ers had to resort to their other key players. With 25 points and 12 rebounds, Sixers forward Harris led the way in lieu of their center’s absence. Even without their MVP candidate, the Sixers were able to out-rebound the Nets. For the Nets, the young players again struggled to stay efficient. Despite playing the most minutes on the team, underwhelming performances from both Bridges and Johnson would prove to be too much to make up for. The 76ers would close out the series with a four game sweep of the Nets, winning the final game 96-88.

The Knicks still have a long road ahead of them this playoffs, but there is one thing for certain: they won’t give up. Their hustle and grit throughout the series have brought them to this lead, and they must keep it up to beat this determined Cavaliers team. While the Nets may be eliminated from the 2023 playoffs, there are still bright spots to look forward to for the future, including the promising play from younger players such as Bridges and Johnson. 

However, one thing remains clear: playoff basketball in New York is back, and it’s here to stay for years to come.