Jalen Brunson is at the forefront of two strategic plot points in what might be the NBA’s most even and unpredictable first-round series. The first, which I covered a little bit earlier this week, essentially boils down to who, if anyone, on the Cavaliers, can guard him? The roster is thin on the perimeter, and after he torched them for 27 points in 29 minutes in Game 1, Cleveland altered its strategy in Game 2, blitzing Brunson and making a concerted effort to load up behind him in isolation. Expect more of that going forward.
But an even more interesting—and potentially consequential—story line is developing on the other end, where Cleveland has quickly realized that good things tend to happen when it hunts Brunson and makes him defend a ball screen. The playoffs are all about exploiting your opponent’s limitations. This, right now, is New York’s most worrisome disadvantage. The bull’s-eye on Brunson’s back has never been so large, against a team that has Donovan Mitchell (who scored 38 points in Game 1) and Darius Garland (who scored 32 points in Game 2).
In 2020-21, Brunson guarded 2.1 picks per game as the screener’s defender. In 2021-22 and 2022-23, he was at 2.7. During last year’s postseason run, that number almost doubled to 5.3. But in the first two games of this series, Cleveland has targeted Brunson a whopping 22 times, a huge number that would be even higher if not for his foul trouble in Game 1 and the lopsided drubbing in Game 2. The only other instance all season in which Brunson’s man set more ball screens came on December 3, when the Knicks were blown out by the Mavericks—a team that’s well aware of his weaknesses.
The result of these small-small pick-and-rolls is a blinking red light inside Tom Thibodeau’s nervous system. Cleveland is ripping his defense to shreds, generating 1.57 points per possession when Brunson is called into the action, which is second worst among all players who’ve defended the screener on at least 20 plays. (Bobby Portis is worse.)
One reason: The Knicks really don’t like surrendering their original matchups. They ranked dead last in switches per 100 possessions this season, according to Second Spectrum. Instead, Brunson will show, blitz, or do this weird thing where he sags into no-man’s-land until his teammate fights through the screen. So far, none of those options have worked against Cleveland:
On the one hand, refusing to give an All-Star backcourt a favorable mismatch is smart. But on the other hand (with a group that finished the regular season 20th in half-court defense) needlessly putting yourself in rotation might not be the way to go, particularly when it infuses role players—like Caris LeVert and Cedi Osman—with confidence.
If you’re wondering why Isaac Okoro—the Cavaliers’ top on-ball defender—was benched down the stretch of Game 1 and the last 45 minutes of Game 2, it’s because he gives Brunson a place to hide. Forget about hitting open 3s, Okoro can’t consistently make plays as the release valve on a pick-and-roll. Catching a pass on the move and then surveying a four-on-three advantage is not something he’s used to or capable of, especially in the fourth quarter of a playoff game.
Instead, Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has turned to Osman and LeVert (who scored 24 points in 40 minutes in Game 2). Both are physically larger threats who can get downhill, shoot on the move, and make quicker reads with the ball in their hands:
Brunson and the Knicks can respond by tweaking their approach and/or tightening up their execution. For example, on the play below, Osman drives right at Brunson, gets into the paint, and finishes over the top. If the Knicks keep that same coverage on a play like this in Game 3, Obi Toppin (or whoever’s guarding a non-shooter) can take a few steps toward the paint before Osman starts his drive. The goal is to make Cleveland reset its offense, or force a skip pass that hits Evan Mobley behind the 3-point line.
No response is perfect. Switching the screen momentarily holds Mitchell or Garland at bay, giving New York extra time to help behind the play and induce hero-ball offense. But it also may force Brunson to exert more energy than he’d like, staying in front of two dynamic, speedy guards who also aren’t bad at drawing fouls.
New York can ramp up the aggression and blitz the ball handler, squeezing a pass and forcing someone else to shoot. But to suddenly dial that up in high-pressure situations and ask a pretty bad defensive team to rotate on a string against an offense that has capable decision-makers all over the floor is … stressful!
Another option could be to switch, get Brunson on the ball, and then double late. Or they can pre-switch to change the matchup before it happens. But what the Knicks definitely shouldn’t do—with their 6-foot-2 point guard—is drop Brunson back a few feet and give his man an opportunity to pick up steam. Or briefly contain and then turn into a matador for no comprehensible reason. (Something is very wrong when Garland almost dunks on your head.)
Or contain the ball but then allow a wide-open 3. (LeVert does a nice job of flipping this screen on Quentin Grimes, which lets Garland drag Brunson out as far as he does.)
Here, Brunson shows at the point of attack, as LeVert slips into space that’s open because Garland ran off a pindown on the strongside. It’s a nifty action that really shows how hard it is to defend in rotation:
This isn’t a hopeless situation for the Knicks. But the Cavaliers won’t be going away from it anytime soon. And it’s unlikely the Knicks can win the series on that side of the floor, anyway. New York allowed 117.1 points per 100 possessions this season with Brunson on the court. (Only the Rockets, Spurs, Blazers, and Pistons defended more poorly than that number.) They allowed 107.8 points per 100 possessions with Brunson on the sideline. (The Cavaliers’ league-best defensive rating was 109.9.)
Brunson’s on-off numbers in a two-game playoff sample size are tiny, noisy, and even worse than what we saw during the regular season. The Knicks’ defense is never less effective than when he’s in the game. Some of that’s bad luck and tough shot-making. But, more significantly, Cleveland has clearly exposed one of its opponent’s most problematic shortcomings. Benching Brunson isn’t an option, yet, especially with RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley struggling on the offensive end. But with Brunson logging big minutes as defensive, the Knicks may need to consistently dominate other areas (like the offensive glass) if they want to advance.
And to that point, even if they do move on, whichever team that emerges from Bucks-Heat will likely follow the Cavaliers’ exact blueprint, until or unless Thibodeau finds a way to adjust.