How the Knicks have dominated the Cavs without making a shot

*Editor’s note: numbers per Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise noted*

It doesn’t make sense.

Teams that rank dead last in turnover percentage don’t usually take a commanding 3-1 lead in a playoff series. Such squads typically are better than second-to-last among playoff teams in effective field goal percentage, too.

In a nutshell, the Knicks have struggled to get a shot up at all, and then only Memphis — at times missing half of its core rotation — has been worse at actually making those shots. This does not sound like a recipe for winning basketball games, and yet the New York Knicks are up 3-1 against Cleveland and have looked like the vastly superior team.

The Knicks’ surprising offensive success this season had been based on two things: offensive rebounding and bully-ball isolations. The Cavs’ shaky defensive rebounding seemed vulnerable. Still, their league-best defensive rating, based on the prodigious twin-tower jailor talents of Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, seemed tailor-made to shut down the Knicks’ one-on-one attacks.

Indeed, New York has been horrific with initial offense (see the second paragraph above). Their only All-Star, Julius Randle, has struggled with an ankle injury and was benched down the stretch of Game 4. He’s shooting a ghastly 32% for the series. Sixth Man of the Year runner-up Immanuel Quickley is shooting 35% from the field. Starter Quentin Grimes only connected on 18% of his shots before missing Game 4 with his own injury. The only rotation Knicks shooting above 47% from the field are big man Mitchell Robinson and big-man-in-a-small-body Josh Hart.

But all those bricks just mean more grist for the hard-hat crew.

The Knicks have powered up their offensive rebounding to Super Saiyan levels — they’ve recovered an astonishing 37.7% of their non-garbage-time misses this series, significantly higher than their elite 30.8% regular season rate.

The stats can tell you what, but the eyes tell you why. And it’s not a subtle technicality. The Knicks’ frontcourt players, notably Mitchell Robinson, are bludgeoning the slender Cavs with overwhelming force. It’s like elephants boxing out giraffes or an NES “Ice Hockey” team made up entirely of fat guys knocking around the skinny characters.

Watch how easily Mitchell Robinson shoves Jarrett Allen out of the way, simultaneously clearing a driving lane for RJ Barrett and positioning himself for an easy tip-in:

Or here, where Robinson steadily displaces Allen with the steady inevitability of a glacier:

Robinson’s station on the dunker spot (on the baseline by the block) has two purposes. First, it keeps Jarrett Allen honest defensively since Allen has to respect Robinson as a lob threat. Second, it gives Robinson inside leverage when a shot goes up to hammer Allen into submission.

Robinson has often required two players to corral him on the boards, leaving room for rebounding savant Josh Hart to wiggle in and snag a rebound, like this backbreaker from Game 4:

Mitchell, Hart, backup Isaiah Hartenstein, and Obi Toppin (playing shockingly well in relief of Randle) have all made hay on the boards. Still, the offensive rebounding could have been foreseen to some degree. What’s shocked many this postseason has been the Knicks’ unbelievable defensive effort against a Cleveland team that had the seventh-best offense in the league during the regular season.

Even as their offense chugged along, manufacturing a surprising number of points through old-school effort and physicality, the Knicks were a disappointing defensive team all year. But almost every flaw they had demonstrated over 82 games — over-helping, missed rotations (mainly from the starters), a tendency towards fouling, on-and-off defensive playmaking — has disappeared or become an asset in the last four contests.

Thibodeau’s system has always emphasized fighting through screens, over-helping, and aggressively recovering. As a result, Knicks defenders have to cover a lot of ground, leaving them vulnerable to sweet-shooting teams with multiple playmakers who can ping-pong the ball around until an open shot emerges. Luckily for New York, the Cavs aren’t that kind of team.

Cleveland is largely getting the shots they want: 34% of their attempts are at the rim and 35% are from deep. That’s a reasonable shot distribution. They’re finishing 66% of their shots at the rim, too, which seems fine on the surface.

But the presence of Robinson and backup center Isaiah Hartenstein down low have allowed the guards and wings to play extra-tight on perimeter players, knowing the big guys are there to back them up. When dribble penetration occurs, the Knicks have been airtight, aggressively helping off non-shooters to pack the paint before rotating cleanly back out to their man. Look at how many bodies Cavs superstar Donovan Mitchell sees on this attempted drive:

Here’s a freeze-frame:

If you can’t see Mitchell, the ballhandler, that’s because he’s been swarmed by three Knicks at the elbow.

Trade-deadline acquisition Hart has been phenomenal on Mitchell, the player whom the Knicks nearly traded for in the offseason before signing Jalen Brunson. Hart has hounded Mitchell relentlessly, holding him to 13-32 shooting when Hart is the primary defender. Take away Mitchell’s fiery Game 1, when he scored 38 points (on 30 shots) in a losing effort, and he’s only averaging 16.7 points per game. Perhaps more impressively, Hart hasn’t been fouling Mitchell, who has shot just nine free throws in the last three games. Spida averaged 28 points and 5.4 free throws per game this season.

On the other side, Cleveland sprite Darius Garland had mercilessly hunted Knicks guard Jalen Brunson in the pick-and-roll in Cleveland’s Game 2 win en route to 32 points, so the Knicks decided in Game 3 just to put Brunson on Garland from the start. The Cavaliers didn’t know what to do with that twist and scored a league-worst 79 points. Garland shot just 4-for-21 in Game 3 (before adjusting some in Game 4). Brunson is New York’s weakest link, but he’s been physical and active at the point of attack.

We already highlighted Hart’s defense, but reserve Immanuel Quickley also deserves heaps of praise. His heady defensive play caught eyes during the season, but he’s transformed into an avatar of coach Tom Thibodeau’s will throughout the series: darting into the paint to help on drives, sprinting out on closeouts, sticking hands in passing lanes, harassing shooters with rear-view contests. As much as Quickley has struggled offensively, his defensive effort and mindfulness have been a delight.

It doesn’t help matters that rising Cleveland star Evan Mobley has looked overwhelmed offensively, struggling when put into decision-making positions on the short roll and sweating pulp-free hesitation on the perimeter. He has nine turnovers and a paltry six assists this series:

Mobley has shown some nice playmaking chops this season, and he has to be better to relieve some pressure on the guards.

With all that said, the Cavs’ core four have actually held serve, thanks to their own defensive dominance. In 98 minutes together, the core four of Allen-Mobley-Mitchell-Garland has outscored the Knicks by 12 points (although most of those minutes have come against Julius Randle, who has generally been horrendous on his balky ankle).

The problem is that if any of them sits, the team falls apart. The Cavaliers only have two reliable three-point shooters in their rotation: Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland. They also only have two capable big men: guess who? The Knicks have been aggressively helping off nearly everyone else to keep the paint clogged, fight over screens, and force Mitchell and Garland into difficult shots. And when just Mobley or Allen is out there as the lone big, the Cavs have gotten pounded even worse on the glass. None of the Cavs’ other players have been able to consistently attack a tilted Knicks’ defense or help on the boards except, occasionally, backup wing Cedi Osman. And if Cedi is your best answer, you might not be asking the right questions.

After giving Isaac Okoro a strong vote of confidence in the regular season, Coach Bickerstaff has lost faith in the defensive ace after watching Knicks defenders sprint away from him (see the freeze frame above — that’s Okoro, #35, sad and alone in the corner). Caris LeVert has been Caris LeVert — a grab bag of disappointment interspersed with the occasional hollow highlight. Watching Danny Green and Ricky Rubio, two old Basketball Poetry favorites, depresses me. Dean Wade, a theoretical 3-and-D fit when healthy, has seen the court for a scant 11 minutes.

We knew the Knicks were deeper, and conventional wisdom suggests depth sees decreased importance in the playoffs, when starters play more minutes and teams lock down their rotations. But playoff basketball is about attacking weaknesses, and the Cavs’ core four are constantly bailing out water let in by leaky holes all over the roster. Right now, the boat is taking on too much brine to stay afloat.

The Cavs aren’t pushovers, even if they have quite literally been pushed over multiple times in this series. They’ll come back home in Game 5, ready for action, and I’d be surprised to see them go down without a fight. But winning three straight seems like a daunting task. If the New York Knicks can close this out, they’ll enter the second round brimming with confidence. And why not? Imagine how good they would be if they could hit a shot.

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.