CLEVELAND (AP) — The New York Knicks couldn’t land Donovan Mitchell last summer.
They’re getting him now. Just not in the way they hoped.
Mitchell, in his first season with Cleveland, has pushed the Cavs back into the NBA playoffs for the first time since LeBron James split in 2018 and will face his hometown team in a first-round series loaded with subplots.
The juiciest, of course, is Mitchell’s connection to the Knicks, who were on the verge of acquiring him in an offseason trade before the deal collapsed, the Cavs swooped in, and the rest, as they say, is history.
On the eve of facing the Knicks, the native New Yorker appreciated how the matchup has a preordained vibe.
“Full-circle moment.” Mitchell said Friday as the Cavs wrapped up practice ahead of Saturday’s series opener at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. “This year has been full of full-circle moments for me.”
The four-time All-Star guard has quickly transformed the young Cavs, who made the play-in tournament a year ago, into legitimate title contenders. It’s a jump that wouldn’t have happened — or at least not this quickly — if things had gone differently in September and Utah had traded Mitchell to New York instead.
But he’s happy to be in Cleveland, and as one of the few Cavs players with extensive postseason experience, Mitchell has a chance to deliver another gut punch to those die-hard Knicks fans still bemoaning him in someone else’s jersey.
New York won the season series against Cleveland 3-1, but a 130-116 win on March 31 was missing several key players, most notably All-Star forward Julius Randle, who missed the final two weeks of the regular season with a sprained left ankle.
Randle was limited in practice this week, but the Knicks listed him as questionable Friday shortly after arriving in Cleveland.
Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff was preparing a plan to play the Knicks with Randle and one without New York’s leading scorer.
But Cleveland center Jarrett Allen seemed caught off guard when told of Randle’s shaky status.
“Uhhh, is that a thing? OK,” Allen said. ”I guess that just shows that we’re prepared either way. I mean, anything can happen. He could play. He could not play. I guess we’re not ready if he doesn’t play, but we have things set up to how they should be.”
As he prepared for his 40th playoff game and first with Cleveland, Mitchell, who averaged a career-best 28.3 points this season, said his message to his teammates has been to enjoy the moment.
Much has been made of the Cavs’ inexperience, but Mitchell countered it could also be a plus.
“There’s a beauty in not knowing what’s coming as well,” he said, “because at the end of the day when you don’t fully understand the magnitude of the moment and just coming out there and playing free, there’s a beauty in that as well. ”
For the second straight year, Mitchell will match moves with Knicks guard Jalen Brunson.
The pair went head to head in last year’s playoffs on different teams: Mitchell in Utah and Brunson in Dallas. Brunson got the better of Mitchell, averaging 27.8 points as the Mavericks ousted the Jazz in seven games.
He had a 41-point game in that series and Brunson dropped a career-high 48 on the Cavs last month.
“If you paid attention, whenever they had people out in Dallas over his entire career, he’s always played well when he filled in and started,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “So just having been around him and watching what he did in high school, in state tournaments and what he did at Villanova in big games, he’s always played his best in big games.”
The offense dried up for the Knicks when they reached the playoffs two years ago, as they managed 96 or fewer points in the final three games of a 4-1 loss to Atlanta.
Randle shot a dismal 29.8% in a disappointing end to a season in which he won the Most Improved Player award.
“I think just one, us having that experience already, it helps, as well as just continuing to work, and we’re a lot better,” forward RJ Barrett said. “The guys that are on this team that were in that playoff run, we’ve all grown and we’ve all gotten better. So that helps.
“The experience helps and just guys that we have now and the additions have been working well and we’ve just been getting better as a team, so I think we’ll be OK.”
AP Basketball Writer Brian Mahoney in New York contributed.
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