Opening Price (via DraftKings): Cleveland Cavaliers (-185) New York Knicks (+150)
The New York Knicks won three of four regular season meetings with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but despite that the betting market has made them sizable underdogs in their first round series. At the center of that price is the unknown status of forward Julius Randle, who is recovering from an ankle injury that caused him to miss the last four games of the regular season. Randle is going to be reevaluated before the series begins, but even with the potential of him being available to start the series has not deterred the betting market from betting this price up.
Randle’s impact on this series goes beyond just being the Knicks’ leading scorer (25.1) and rebounder (10.0). His presence on the floor can create match up issues for Cleveland’s defense.
When these two teams met on Jan. 24, Randle scored 36 points on 11-of-21 shooting from the floor. His scoring forced the Cavaliers to put Jarrett Allen on him as a primary defender in the second half, leaving Evan Mobley to play the five defensively. That strategy worked because Mitchell Robinson missed the game, but in a playoff series where Robinson is on the floor that defensive change cannot happen, as his ability to work the offensive glass against the smaller Mobley will hurt Cleveland.
Randle’s presence also limits who the Cavaliers can hide Donovan Mitchell on defensively.
In the game that Randle missed, Mitchell was on Obi Toppin defensively, but with Randle on the floor Mitchell is forced to defend one of Quentin Grimes or RJ Barrett, both of whom can score in isolation against Mitchell at a higher rate than someone like Toppin. Mitchell is still prone to poor defensive play, especially when forced to defend at the point of attack. Randle missing time in this series means fewer possessions in which Mitchell is forced to defend on the ball.
That being said, Cleveland has its own injury concerns heading into this series.
Jarrett Allen missed seven of the Cavaliers’ last 12 games of the regular season with what seems to be a groin injury. It does not seem that he is in danger of missing time as of now, but a recurrent soft tissue injury should be of some concern.
The other injury of note is to Isaac Okoro, who missed the last five games of the season with a knee injury. Okoro does not tilt a series price in one direction or another, but bettors would be wise to not underestimate his impact on this series.
Okoro is Cleveland’s best perimeter defender, and he will usually take up the assignment of defending the opposition’s best backcourt scorer. In the Cavaliers’ win in New York on Jan. 24 he was the primary defender on Jalen Brunson, and he helped limit Brunson to just 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting in that game. It is no coincidence that Okoro missed the last game between these two teams and Brunson went off for 48 points on 18-of-32 shooting.
On offense he might only average 6.4 points per game, but his presence matters on that end of the floor as well. Okoro shot 37.3% on corner 3-point attempts this season, and while that mark placed him the 34th percentile of players at his position in that category, it is a much better mark than the 26.5% clip Lamar Stevens shot from the corners this season. Okoro is a decent enough shooter that he needs to be respected by opposing defenses, but Stevens is not. If Okoro misses time that means Stevens will likely replace him in the starting lineup and that could greatly impact the Cavaliers’ spacing on offense.
Still, the Cavaliers’ offense begins with Donovan Mitchell, and he enters the postseason on a scorching run.
Mitchell has scored at least 40 points in each of his last four games, and since Feb. 10 he is averaging 31.4 points on 50.5% shooting from the floor. He has been on both ends of the spectrum in this series, posting two games of 38 or more points on better than 60.0% shooting from the floor and two games of less than 30 points on under 40.0% shooting from the floor. Quentin Grimes has been the primary defender on Mitchell throughout this series, and he guarded him on nearly every possession when Mitchell scored 42 points on 16-of-23 shooting at the end of March. Mitchell will almost certainly get his, so it is up to the Knicks to limit the contributions of the others around him.
Darius Garland never found his footing in this series in the regular season, and averaged only 19.7 points and 6.0 assists per game on 34.5% shooting from the floor. His ability to provide some scoring outside of Mitchell is obviously crucial. Jalen Brunson and RJ Barrett both had games as his primary defender, and both are certainly capable of taking up that mantle again in this series. If Garland is going to put forth average outings in this series yet again, then the onus on Mitchell to provide scoring will grow, because there is not much on this roster.
Evan Mobley is Cleveland’s third leading scorer at 16.3 points per game, but he was uninspiring in the series with New York, averaging 13.3 points on 10.3 field goal attempts per game. If Randle plays in this series he is good enough defensively to make Mobley, who is still growing as an offensive player, uncomfortable. Caris LeVert is a fine scorer coming off the bench at 12.1 points per game, but he can be inefficient, as represented by 1.090 points per shot attempt this season. The scoring drops off dramatically after LeVert, and that is where New York has an advantage in this series.
The Knicks have six players who average at least 10.1 points per game, and three of them average 19.6 per game or more if Randle is available. They bring two of those double-digit scorers - Immanuel Quickley and Josh Hart - off the bench, and their bench unit is among the best in the postseason. In the possessions with both Quickley and Hart on the floor without Brunson or Randle, New York outscored their opponents by 10.8 points per 100 possessions. The Knicks’ bench outscored the Cavaliers’ bench in all four games in the regular season by an average of 8.25 points per game.
That is not to say this New York offense is without flaws.
The Knicks tend to be very isolation heavy when it comes to running its offense. It is why they ranked last in assist rate this season (54.6%) and 22nd in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.77). They shoot the seventh most pull-up jumpers of any team in the NBA, but rank 22nd in shooting percentage on those attempts (38.1%). They are also a high volume, low efficiency shooting team which finished the regular season 11th in 3-point frequency (36.2%), but 22nd in 3-point percentage (35.8%). That style of offense can lead to some poor shooting nights, and in a series with so many talented defenders it could lead to an advantage for Cleveland.
Randle’s status creates some unknown with this series, but it is surprising to see the general consensus on Cleveland to such a degree here. The market has pushed this series price up to -200 (66.7% implied probability) without a real update on Randle for this series. Should he be available at the beginning of the series this is a price that I would expect to be around -165 (62.3%).
New York has the better bench and more offensive creators than Cleveland. The Cavaliers have the best player on the court in Mitchell, but their bench lacks scoring and they could be without their best backcourt defender in Okoro to start the series. This series should be tighter than the general consensus is expressing, and if Randle plays then a bet on this series spread for New York is playable if there is no real adjustment by the market.
Bet Recommendation: Knicks +1.5 Games (-130)