Knicks guard RJ Barrett drives against Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell during...

Knicks guard RJ Barrett drives against Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell during the first half of an NBA game Sunday in Cleveland. Credit: Nick Cammett

CLEVELAND — Before the game began, before Donovan Mitchell began to rain three-pointers down on the Knicks, Tom Thibodeau was asked if there was a point in the offseason when he thought Mitchell would be doing his damage for him rather than against him.

“You already know the answer,” Thibodeau said. “We don’t deal in hypotheticals.”

But you don’t have to because the answer is well-known. The Knicks, not just Thibodeau, thought the stars — and assets — were aligned to make the move to obtain the star the franchise has sought.

Mitchell, a New York native, not only was on the market after three All-Star seasons with the Utah Jazz but was convinced he was heading home. And according to sources close to Thibodeau, he was pushing hard for the team to make the move.

But the Knicks quibbled over how many draft picks to include in a package, the Cavaliers swept in to trade for Mitchell and the Knicks saw the fallout close up Sunday for the first time. He had 38 points and 12 assists, as the Knicks fell, 121-108, at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.

 

Asked if the Knicks might want a do-over on the trade, Mitchell said, “You gotta ask them. I’m happy to be here. It’s over with. We got a good win. We’re 5-1. We will see these guys again in a month or two. We will be ready.”

When the Knicks tried to close on him, he blew by them. And when they converged on him in the lane, he kicked out to open shooters. Kevin Love came off the bench to shoot 8-for-13 from three-point range and finish with 29 points. Dean Wade added 22 points and shot 6-for-8 from beyond the arc.

“I always love playing against my home team,” Mitchell said. “It’s easy to point to the summer and say that [it was payback], but I’m pretty much friends with everybody on that team, so it’s always good to play against your guys and I have nothing but love for them . . . I wouldn’t say I used it for that. But everybody will probably make it that. Not what it is. Got nothing but love for those guys over there. When it’s your home team, you want to go out there and play hard. That’s what I was trying to do.”

“He had a great game,” Jalen Brunson said. “I think we just have to do a better job of making it tougher for him. Once a guy like that gets going and has confidence from the start, it’s kind of hard to slow him down. But it’s a team effort. It’s not just one guy guarding him. It’s all of us. We have to be more on a string defensively, looking out for each other. But I got to give him credit, he’s capable of doing that.”

Mitchell shot 8-for-13 from three-point range for the Cavs, who outscored the Knicks 37-15 in the fourth quarter to erase a nine-point deficit.  “Got to play for 48 minutes. No leads are safe,’’ Thibodeau said. “I thought we played well for three quarters.’’

Before the first quarter was over, Mitchell had piled up 15 points and five assists. RJ Barrett and Evan Fournier, whose names came up in the trade talks with Utah, took turns guarding Mitchell, and after that first quarter, they did it with some success. He had 11 points and three assists in the next two quarters, but in the fourth quarter, he took over.

After a 1-for-7 first half, Brunson (16 points, seven assists) had 12 points in the third quarter as the Knicks outscored Cleveland 34-22 to take a 93-84 lead.

Early in the fourth quarter, Mitchell pinned Obi Toppin’s layup against the backboard, then blew by Cam Reddish and weaved through traffic, dunking over Toppin. With 7:25 to play and the Knicks leading by four, Mitchell connected on an off-balance three-pointer, drawing a foul on Barrett to turn it into a tying four-point play. Not long after that, Love contributed a four-point play of his own as the Cavs began to pull away.

“He’s very athletic. It’s crazy,” Toppin said of Mitchell. “That’s my guy. He did great today, really good today. But we’ve got to be better on both sides of the court.”

“He’s a terrific player,” Thibodeau said of Mitchell before the game. “When you dig into their numbers, you clearly see the impact that he’s had. He’s a high-end talent. So he was that in Utah. He’s that here. When you have a player like that, it’s going to make everyone else a lot better, and he’s done that.

“The way he’s played, he attacks. His shot profile is very good. He’s taking eight to 10 threes a game, he puts a lot of pressure on the rim. That makes them very difficult to defend. But as I said, they’ve got guys that are shooting the ball well for them. [Caris] LeVert is shooting the ball well. [Cedi] Osman is shooting the ball well. A part of that, I think, could be attributed to the attention you have to give Mitchell. And then it’s a well-balanced team, the pressure on the rim . . . I think they’re one of the best teams in the East.”

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