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Boston Herald
Boston Herald
1 Apr 2023
Tribune News Service

NextImg:Donovan Mitchell eager for playoff series against Knicks: ‘Wouldn’t want it any other way’

CLEVELAND — It would, at this point, require the very unexpected to NOT see a Knicks-Cavaliers playoff matchup.

It would take a Knicks collapse to fall behind the Nets in the standings, or, even less likely, the Cavaliers to surge above the Sixers with five games to play.

So while that’s not mathematically impossible, the understanding from both sides is to prepare for the likelihood.

On Friday, Donovan Mitchell not only obliged a question about the theoretical matchup, he launched into a long answer about the powerful emotions associated with playing postseason games in New York.

“It’s full circle. You wouldn’t want it any other way. What kid wouldn’t want to play against his hometown team in the playoffs?” Mitchell said. “I think for me, I wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s a storybook ending — it’s not ending, but it’s a storyline. Something that’s really special and near and dear to me, being able to play in a playoff game in front of my friends and family, the team that I grew up watching.”

Mitchell spoke Friday night after his Cavs fell to the Knicks, 130-116, a game that turned in the fourth quarter when Tom Thibodeau’s defense dialed up the intensity.

It clinched New York the regular season series, 3-1, but another consensus was that there’s minimal carryover to the playoffs.

A big reason was injuries to players who should be available in a first-round series.

“No [there was nothing take from the game toward the playoffs],” Josh Hart said. “They don’t got Jarrett Allen. They don’t got [Isaac] Okoro. We don’t got [Julius Randle]. Maybe some of the individual things you see on both sides and you get a feel for it. But I think both teams are going to play totally different.”

Hart’s logic tracks. The absence of Randle prompted the Knicks to play faster than their normal style, and the DNPs from Allen and Okoro — two of the Cavaliers top defenders — undoubtedly contributed to New York owning the glass while piling on points.

Mitchell, who scored 42 points, brushed the defeat aside.

“This is a loss,” he said. “This isn’t the playoffs. We didn’t lose homecourt.”

The Knicks learned the hard way that head-to-head success means diddly in the playoffs. Two years ago, they swept the Hawks in the regular season. Then Trae Young took over when it really mattered.

But there was a noteworthy development in Friday’s Cleveland game, beyond Jalen Brunson’s 48-point gem. Hart, the midseason acquisition, played his first game against the Cavs as a member of the Knicks. And after Mitchell detonated New York’s defense through three quarters, Hart took on the assignment with ferocity and bottled up the All-Star.

Hart did a better job than the Knicks starter, Quentin Grimes, who sat for most of the fourth quarter. Perhaps it was a preview of who will be appointed the Donovan stopper in the playoffs.

The Knicks will need one to avoid an early elimination.

“I’ve been guarding him for six years,” said Hart, who added that he plays pickup games against Mitchell in the offseason in Miami.

Still, Hart didn’t take credit for holding Mitchell to four points in the fourth quarter. He noted that he was also guarding Mitchell earlier in the game without success.

“[I didn’t change] a damn thing,” Hart said. “Same s—t I did the first quarter, the second quarter, the third quarter, the fourth quarter. Me personally, I did the same thing every time. He’s a really good offensive player so he’s going to torch me some plays and I’m going to lock him up some plays. That’s how it is when you’re guarding some of the best offensive players.”

Mitchell is certainly capable of making unguardable shots, but he’s also streaky enough to lose a playoff series if the stroke is cold. Just last year, he shot 39 percent and was outplayed by Brunson as the Mavericks toppled Utah in the opening round.

Against the Knicks, he’d be the center of attention as the top player and the trade target who got away from New York.

“I’m excited for the challenge,” Mitchell said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun. If that happens.”

It probably will.