Knicks’ potential second-round matchup looks different after Giannis Antetokounmpo’s injury
CLEVELAND — The players won’t say it. The coach certainly won’t.
But because of the circumstances elsewhere in the East, the Knicks’ first-round series suddenly feels a little more important.
Before Giannis Antetokounmpo fell on his back Sunday, Knicks-Cavs was viewed as a matchup to determine who lost to the Bucks in the conference semis. It was the logical take since the Bucks, who finished with the NBA’s best record, were the betting favorites to win their second title in three years.
Those odds shifted Sunday when Antetokounmpo suffered a bruised lower back and Milwaukee was pummeled by the Heat in Game 1.
There’s reportedly “optimism” Antetotokounmpo will return for Game 2 on Wednesday, but it’s an injury that requires patience, maintenance with the potential for physical struggles. The Heat, meanwhile, represent a lively eighth seed even with Antetokounmpo at full strength.
And the Knicks, who won their regular season series against Miami (but were swept by the Bucks), should be applauding the Heat’s Game 1 victory. Just don’t expect the players to look any further than the Cavs.
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“I think when you come on the road, you always try to steal one. We were able to do that,” RJ Barrett said. “Now we got to try to come back, stay focused and get another one. Our goal is to win the series. And Game 2 is next. That’s really all we’re focused on.”
Half the road teams won Game 1 across the NBA playoffs, including the Knicks.
“They’ve been great games,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “You look at what goes into winning and being ready to play. Some of it, I think — an injury can change things quickly in a series. So, there’s a lot of factors that are going into it. Some of the teams that were in the play-in, you don’t know whether it’s gonna help or hurt. I think in Miami’s case, it probably helped them. They came in with an edge. There’s two big injuries in that game, so that changes things. There’s so many different things. But if you’re playing in the playoffs, you’re a good team.”
After getting bullied by the Knicks on Saturday, many Cavaliers players lamented their lack of physicality while vowing to change in Game 2.
Darius Garland put it like this: “We need to hit first and see how the refs react instead of being punched in the face and just laying down to it.”
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Knicks players were expecting Cleveland to follow through.
“Whenever someone, the losing team, loses in the playoffs, they’re gonna bring it the next game,” Jalen Brunson said. “That’s how it always is, that’s how I’ve learned from my experience is that the next game, it’s always more intensity, more physicality and all that.
“I expect them to adjust, they’re a great team, great coach, they played well all year, they play really well here. So it’s things that everyone may talk about it, but it’s gonna happen.”
Quentin Grimes overcame a jinx attempt to ice Game 1 at the foul line.
With four seconds left and the Knicks leading by two, Grimes buried the first one before Donovan Mitchell came over to remark that the shot looked shaky.
“Because it rattled in a little bit,” Grimes said. “So I was like, ‘You’re going to like this next one.’ And made sure I knocked it down all net.”
It was the final bucket of New York’s 101-97 win.