Jalen Brunson and RJ Barrett had a moment.
On four straight possessions on the half court in Sunday’s fourth quarter, the New York Knicks performed the same play. Brunson would dribble past him to start the offense. Barrett would set up a screen for Josh Hart on the right side of the field, then run up the wing to set one up for Brunson. Then the two would engage in a pick-and-roll.
The Knicks created a great look on all four possessions. Barrett manipulated them like he had millions of times before. On one play, Barrett switched to 3-point arc for an open jumper. The next day, Cleveland Cavaliers winger Caris LeVert closed in on Barrett too much, so he fought his way to the basket, as he had successfully done all day. The next play led to a dunk for Hart, and the next one led to a 3-pointer from Hart.
But the thing is, Barrett isn’t a longtime partner for Brunson. It was new.
They weren’t the first Brunson-Barrett pick-and-rolls in franchise history, but the Knicks we got to know during the regular season wouldn’t play four straight. And if they did, those games were certainly not surrounded by pick-and-rolls involving other guards and wings putting screens for Brunson. Barrett is far from the only non-central setting choice for Brunson these days. Hart and Immanuel Quickley also frequently released Brunson during the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game.
A team that used its big men to set up screens more often during the regular season has strayed from its comfort zone and got… even more comfortable.
The Knicks have changed. They did it consciously. And that’s why they now lead the Cleveland Cavaliers 3-1 in their first-round playoff series after a 102-93 victory in Game 4 at Madison Square Garden.
The discussion entering this series was about firepower. The Cavs had the best record, top net rating, No. 1 ranked defense in the league, two world rim protectors and two explosive guards who could destroy any opposing backcourt. The Knicks were the epitome of courage. Nobody played harder than them during the regular season. But that identity doesn’t necessarily lend itself to other gear, type teams often need to upset higher seeds in the playoffs.
Just don’t tell the Knicks that, because New York has reached a level it didn’t during the regular season.
The Knicks found ways to score against a teeming defense, even with lone All-Star Julius Randle slamming like a college bunch. Guard pick-and-rolls opened up the offense in the fourth quarter of Game 4, just as they did in the second half of Game 3.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau follows suit. He closed out Sunday’s win with Obi Toppin instead of Randle, who scored just seven points and struggled on defense. Barrett has switched to a new mode. He didn’t just make shots on Sunday; he took those Thibodeau wanted from him.
Those little fadeaways Barrett tried earlier in the series aren’t Thibodeau’s jam — nor are the 6-foot turnovers he sometimes tries when the coach thinks he can go all the way to the hoop. Barrett is strong. He caught fire in the second half of last season because he was living in the paint. This is the version that Thibodeau encourages. He knows Barrett won’t draw as many fouls if he doesn’t strike first too.
The first play of Sunday’s game was to choke Barrett at the rim. He attempted to dunk Jarrett Allen and fouled out a few possessions later. At the end of the day, 11 of his shots were layups or dunks. He made eight. It’s no coincidence that he finished with 26 points on 9-of-18 shooting. Barrett also reached the free throw line 13 times, though converting just eight.
“(He was) super aggressive, downhill, to get to the line,” Thibodeau said.
It’s a new gear, just like what’s happening defensively, where the Knicks can’t stop moving. This team finished 19th in the NBA in points per possession during the regular season, but you’d never know that after the four games against the Cavs.
Cleveland has scored under 100 points in three of those games. No playoff team in 2023 scores less efficiently than the Cavaliers.
Mitchell Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein locked the paint again in Game 4. Hart disrupted Donovan Mitchell with Quentin Grimes with a shoulder contusion. Quickley didn’t score all afternoon, but also helped strip the paint, due to how quickly he assisted on the weak side whenever the Cavs sent a man into the lane. Cleveland was unable to figure out their off-ball defense. The Knicks veered away from the Cavaliers’ corner 3-point shooters, knocking out the paint for most of the series.
You can also see the gears change, even in the most subtle way. For example, Grimes adjusted his footwork while guarding Donovan Mitchell’s pick-and-rolls in Game 3, which made it easier for the sophomore guard to stay in front of the four-time All-Star when Mitchell “rejected the screens, which he likes to do.
The Knicks now know their opponent better. It shows.
Barrett plays his most aggressive brand of basketball. They pick up the Cavs on fast breaks like they haven’t with any team all season. The transition defense was a huge weakness during the regular season. Well, things have changed.
The Knicks were playing hard. now they play Really hard. But the three wins in four games are due to more than that.
They lock down tiny details — whether it’s Barrett’s shot selection or how Grimes should angle his body against Mitchell — and fix them for next time. And some guys just hit new levels, like Robinson, who may be playing the best basketball of his career.
Robinson rejected the idea of creating “Playoff Mitch”.
“Mitch’s playoffs aren’t a thing,” he said. “I’m still Mitch.”
But through four games, the Knicks have proven that there is a playoff version of this team that goes beyond what they showed during the regular season.
“We’re playing extremely hard,” Barrett said. “We do bustle games. … The whole team, all the hustle games that we do, we’re really together collectively.
(Photo by Isaiah Hartenstein, Donovan Mitchell and Josh Hart: Elsa/Getty Images)