Two questions loomed large when the Knicks arrived at Ohio’s Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse: will the New York Knicks (45-33) persevere without their injured All-Star Julius Randle, and how would they fare against their potential Playoff opponent, the fourth-seed Cleveland Cavaliers (48-30).
After a career-high of 48 points from Jalen Brunson, and with seven Knicks recording double-digit points, the Knicks fellowship can rest assured: the answer to both questions is, they’ll be fine.
This clash of the Eastern Conference fourth and fifth seeds was likely a preview of the first round of the upcoming Playoffs, and it did not disappoint. Even by modern-NBA standards, tonight’s game was an offensive stunner. Cleveland may have the league’s top-rated defense—and the Knicks are respectable on that end, too—but, despite the usual heroics from Josh Hart and Isaiah Hartenstein, this game easily qualified as “defense-optional.”
Without the scoring and rebounding from Julius Randle, who recently suffered an ankle sprain, New York would need contributions from everyone against Donovan Mitchell and the Cavs. Filling in for the ailing All-Star power forward, Obi Toppin made his first start of the season. Toppin kicked off the game with a three-ball, but early on, the Knicks missed Randle’s physical presence down low, with Lamar Stevens and sophomore Evan Mobley pushing Mitchell Robinson around in the paint on the first few possessions.
The two teams traded baskets through the first half of the frame, but when Cleveland gained a six-point lead, Thibs called time to settle things.
Recovering from a sprained hand, Jalen Brunson gave uneven performances in his previous two games. Tonight he faced his foe from last year’s Playoffs, Donovan Mitchell (then of the Utah Jazz). Trying to contain Mitchell can be a miserable task, and, from the jump, Spida was nearly unstoppable. Nearly all his shots fell through the first 12 minutes, when he went 9-for-10 for 23 points, including 3-for-4 from downtown. Is he a slightly more motivated when he plays against New York? Seems so:
The hot shooting spread like a coronavirus through the Fieldhouse, with all Knicks starters (save Mitch) logging at least one three-ball in Q1. Not to be outdone by Mitchell, Brunson had scored 21 points, his career best for a quarter.
TWENTY-ONE POINTS for BRUNSON BURNER— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) April 1, 2023
yes... it's only Q1... pic.twitter.com/tEtVNc4eRF
By the frame’s finish, the two teams had scored a ridiculous 89 total points. Cleveland led 47-42, which was the most points New York had surrendered in a first quarter this season. The Knicks had shot 7-for-12 from deep, too, and here’s one:
WHOLE squad on from DEEP— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) April 1, 2023
Shooting 64% from beyond the arc pic.twitter.com/6ZUbjCkgw6
To start the second, Thibs rolled out a line-up of Deuce McBride, Supermannuel Quickley, RJ Barrett, Josh Hart, and Isaiah Hartenstein. This bunch easily kept pace with Bickerstaff’s Boys. Mitchell continued his blazing pace, but his teammates could not, and by the time Hart sank a fadeaway jumper midway through the second, the Knicks had seized the lead.
For every firework Mitchell launched, Brunson had an answer. JB had the best half of his career, logging 33 points on 13-for-20 from the field, and 4-for-7 from deep. Also, five assists, zero turnovers. Tell your friends: the Brunson v. Mitchell matchup this postseason is gonna be must-see TV.
With three and change on the clock, Josh Hart drew a charge from Mitchell, sending the star-scorer to the bench with his third personal. That killed Cleveland’s momentum and is yet another example of how Hart is a winning player.
In Randle’s absence, the remaining players needed to make up his missing points. Here’s sophomore Quinten Grimes putting in four:
As appropriate for such a high-scoring evening, Mitchell Robinson tipped in a Quickley miss for a buzzer-beater that put the Knicks up 79-72 going into intermission. Combined, that’s the most points scored by two teams in any half this season.
Through the first half, New York had shot 30-for-48 (63%) from the floor, and 12-for-20 (60%!) from deep, while Cleveland had gone 27-for-47 (57%) and 11-for-18 (61%), respectively. Despite the shaky start, Robinson found his footing in the frontcourt and then some. In the first half, he snatched five O-boards and helped the ’Bockers win the rebound battle, 19 to 14. Your heroes had eight offensive boards to Cleveland’s three.
Offensive ridiculousness persisted post-halftime, with Brunson and Mitchell continuing their spicy tit-for-tat. While the teams traded buckets, they got chippier against their opponents—and, in one case, their teammates.
RJ Barrett and Obi Toppin got into a heated discussion about something during a timeout midway through the third quarter and were restrained from each other by teammates. Thankfully, cool heads prevailed, and they buried the hatchet post-time. I missed what happened, so if you saw what the dust-up was about, please explain below.
Asked about the incident after the game, Thibs was all smiles, joking, “I don’t recall. I didn’t see it.” Surely, RJ wasn’t kvetching about this:
New York crossed the century mark with over three minutes remaining in the quarter. They average 12.5 three-pointers per game this season. At the close of Q3, NY had canned 14-of-28.
Brunson rested to start the final frame, with Deuce McBride and Quickley sharing backcourt duties. The quarter had an inauspicious start, as the Cavaliers sliced their deficit to three points before Thibs called timeout at the ten-minute mark. Out of the break, Hart—who was all over the court, with a hand in everything—drilled a three to give New York breathing room. Quickley quickly followed with a three-point play, iHart lasered an assist to a cutting McBride, and voila: Knicks up by 11, then 13, then 15.
Cleveland kept fighting, though, and cut the score to 123-116 with three on the clock. A timeout from Thibs steadied the team, however, and Brunson, Hart, and iHart were determined to close it out.
And so they did. Your final: 130-116,
- Brunson’s fourth 40+ game of the season. Prior to this campaign, Jalen had never topped 40 points in an NBA game. Tonight’s totals: 48 points, nine assists, four rebounds, and only two turnovers in 37 minutes. 18-of-32 from the field, 7-of-12 from deep. That’s the most points scored by a Knicks point guard in the last 60 years.
- Cleveland averages 112 points per game. With Mitchell scoring 42, to hold them to 116 tonight is commendable.
- Mitchell Robinson finished the game with a team-high 14 rebounds. Hat’s off to Hartenstein, though. Not only did iHart throw a couple of absolute dimes, but he cleanly stuffed Stevens at point-blank range, right below the rim midway through Q4, and then again with 1:30 left. Both were timely plays, and once again, iHart proved why he’s the preferred center to close games.
- Obi finished with 12 points and one rebound in 19 minutes. He did shoot 2-for-2 from downtown, though.
- Jalen Brunson has drawn 26 charges this season, third in the NBA. Dude is worth every penny.
Quoth MelleMehl: “I don’t want to hear the ‘one superstar away’ nonsense anymore.” Indeed. The Playoffs can’t come soon enough, because I can’t wait to see these two teams battle again. Our heroes will be back home to face the Washington Wizards this Sunday for a 6:00 p.m. showdown. Stay hydrated, Knickerbockers.