Cavaliers are the NBA feel-good story the Knicks were last year

CLEVELAND — With the pandemic and a snowstorm, downtown Cleveland turned into deserted wasteland Monday. About two years ago, the Knicks were in town on Super Bowl Sunday and many of those lively bars that were packed that day have since shuttered.

However, the decay of the Cavaliers’ basketball team has ended.

The Cavaliers are the feel-good story of the NBA season — similar to the Knicks’ renaissance of 2020-21. They’re meeting Monday at Rocket Mortgage Arena in what is a big test for the Knicks, who have seen the woebegone Cavaliers sprint by them.

It’s been so buoyant with the Cavaliers, their coach JB Bickerstaff was ticked off after a Cleveland victory Saturday because it beat Oklahoma City by seven points.

“We’ll take the win but that was a disappointing game for us,” Bickerstaff said.

The last three years of being a fixture of the draft lottery is finally paying off. Point guard Darius Garland, selected fifth-overall (two spots after the Knicks took RJ Barrett in 2019), is emerging as a star.

Darius Garland (#10) and the Cavaliers are the surprise of this NBA season.

Rookie lottery pick, Evan Mobley, a power forward out of USC selected third, is the easy favorite for NBA Rookie of the Year. He pummeled the Knicks in their first meeting at the Garden on Nov. 7, finishing with 26 points, nine rebounds and five assists, schooling Julius Randle.

Point guard Ricky Rubio, a former Tom Thibodeau castoff, was playing out of his mind until a recent injury. Former All-Star Kevin Love is still around and Cedi Osman has emerged as a consistent performer.

Too, the Cavaliers made a shrewd pickup of power forward Lauri Markkanen, whom Phil Jackson contemplated drafting in 2017 in a deal that would have cost the Knicks Kristaps Porzingis.

Markkanen, though, just suffered an ankle sprain after scorching in January when he averaged 14.6 points on 41.4 percent shooting from 3.

With ex-Net Jarrett Allen fulfilling his potential, the Cavaliers have used a “tall-ball’’ lineup of Allen-Mobley-Markkanen.

While the Cavaliers have won six of their past seven to move to 25-16 and into fifth place in the Eastern Conference, the Knicks are still trying to find the chemistry and camaraderie of last season when they snapped a seven-season playoff drought.

Cavaliers NBA
The Cavaliers have an intimidating frontcourt with Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley.

Though their 23-24 record after 47 games is not so far off of last season’s pace when they were 24-23 and the toast of the town, the Knicks have fallen to 11th in the conference — no longer a shoo-in to at least make the play-in tournament.

The Knicks have found it tough now being a marked team. And the Cavaliers are now getting similar treatment with the rest of the NBA realizing Cleveland is back on the map.

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau considers the Cavaliers the real deal, calling them “a really good Cleveland team.”

“Everybody wants to beat us now,” Garland said. “When you’re hunted, you’ve just got to step it up a little bit more.”

Indeed, the Cavaliers — like the Knicks last season — have taken everyone by surprise. They weren’t touted as one of the significantly improved teams in the Eastern Conference with the Bulls, Charlotte and Washington gaining most of the preseason buzz.

The Cavaliers are doing what Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks did last season.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

The Cavaliers opened at the Westgate Sportsbook with an Over/Under for wins at 27.5.

Since LeBron James bolted a second time in 2018, the Cavaliers have finished in 13th, 14th and 15th place. Last season they stumbled at 22-50.

But they’ve found their point guard in Garland while the Knicks are still figuring that position out. The irony is Garland has flourished most since Collin Sexton was lost for the season in November with a torn meniscus in his left knee that needed surgery. They shared the backcourt in an awkward arrangement.

Sexton was a Knicks’ point guard target last summer entering the draft, but they ultimately passed. Sexton, the former Alabama whiz who is a client of Creative Artists Agency the Knicks president Leon Rose once ran, is a restricted free agent.

It’s likely the Cavaliers would either trade him at the Feb. 10 deadline or pass on re-signing him. This wasted season is expected to lower his contract demands. There was speculation around the league last summer he would one day ask for the maximum contract.

Meanwhile, Monday’s battle was a big test for the Knicks, who now must face a ton of road games against tough opponents. This three-game trip continues to Miami and Milwaukee. After two home games, the Knicks are off on a rugged five-game western swing.

“We’ve been really good on the road,” emerging star RJ Barrett said. “I think that’s one thing about us. Also, we don’t care. I think we could beat anybody. I think we could beat anybody anywhere, so we believe that and I think that we’re gonna be able to show that.”

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