The Knicks rout of the understaffed Cavaliers Tuesday in the first game of a back-to-back was just that — an eminently winnable game against a team on its heels — and as they prepared for the encore Wednesday evening, Tom Thibodeau refused to be lulled by the mirage.
They need to make their shots. They need to cut down on turnovers. And they have to continue to build chemistry in a season where they dropped two of their first three games. They should probably do a better job of containing Donovan Mitchell, too.
Let’s call Wednesday an 0-for-4.
Playing without RJ Barrett, who was nursing a sore left knee that he hurt in the season opener, the Knicks’ woeful shooting and generally stagnant offense was upended by the undermanned Cavs, 95-89 at Madison Square Garden.
The difference maker was again Mitchell — you know, the guy general manager Scott Perry passed on because he wasn’t a “singular force” — who was . . . well . . . relatively close to being a singular force. He scored a game-high 30 points and hit a rally-killing three late in the game to help seal it.
“He’s a great player, he made a great move,” Thibodeau said. “You’re not guarding a guy like that individually it’s done collectively. I felt in the first half he got away from us, played a lot more in the open floor so we have to make sure we shore that up.”
The Knicks shot 34.8% from the floor and allowed 14 turnovers for 16 points. They went 5-for-30 from three.
Jalen Brunson led the Knicks with 24 points, while Mitchell Robinson had 16 rebounds, six points and two blocks. Julius Randle was 3-for-14 from the floor for six points.
“We’re not getting anything easy,” Randle said. “It just feels like we’re working hard for everything right now. We’ve got to find a way to make the game a little bit easier for each other out there.”
Down 79-70, the Knicks took off on a 6-0 run and nearly tied the score when Randle’s 24-footer bounded off the rim with 3:30 left in the game. With 2:48 to go, Robinson made one of his two free throws to get the Knicks to within two.
Mitchell, though, immediately responded — hitting a three and a putback 30 seconds later to thoroughly deflate the Knicks.
“You’ve just got to find a way to win those games,” Immanuel Quickley said. “Tired, not tired — making shots, man, making shots. You’ve got to find a way to scratch out those wins.”
With the Cavs down 52-50 early in the third, Evan Mobley cobbled together two free throws and a layup to capture the lead for good — part of a 10-3 run that would eventually put them up 62-55 with 4:30 left in the frame. Mobley’s layup gave the Cavs a 71-63 advantage going into the fourth.
The Knicks shot a woeful 6-for-24 in a third quarter where they were outscored 22-14, and outscored 14-6 in the paint.
And despite a Cavs team that was again playing without Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen, they nonetheless looked far more up to the challenge Wednesday, trailing the Knicks 50-49 at the break behind Mitchell’s 23 points. Mitchell also scored the Cavs’ first 13 points.
Asked about containing Mitchell, who also scored 26 Tuesday, Thibodeau said before the game that “it requires multiple efforts.”
It’s about “guys being tied together, and then having the abilities to finish with defense, but we know it doesn’t take him much to get going and if he gets some easy looks, you’re playing with fire,” Thibodeau said. “You’ve got to try to make him work as much as you can, and he has the ability to make a tough shot so you need everyone on him.”