The New York Knicks were playing no funny games against the excuse-us-cuz-we’re-here-for-the-first-time Cavs and completed the MSG-sweep of Cleveland with a stout 102-93 win on Sunday.
Tom Thibodeau made an incredible—truly—decision that could very well credited as the deciding and game-changing choice that lifted New York above the Cavs to wrap up the weekend: he benched Julius Randle for the whole fourth quarter.
Randle played 77 regular-season games this year. He sat through a fourth quarter just eight times, once because of his season-ending ankle injury against the Heat on March 29. Obi Toppin, his replacement on Sunday, played only 14 minutes in Games 1 and 2, 15 in G2, and, finally, 20 in G4 to send Cleveland home packing.
“We were searching, and we knew this game was going to be a challenge because of the late game on Friday, short turnaround, early start today, [have to] find a way to win,” Thibodeau said. “That group got going, so at some point, you make a decision—probably around the five-minute mark, six-minute mark—and rode that out.”
And rode that out they did on the way to another W, the third in this series and the second-to-last before clinching a place in the Eastern Conference semi-finals for the first time since 2013.
Thibs had to start the game with another change in place—Josh Hart starting for the injured Quentin Grimes (shoulder contusion), who was ruled out for G4 just minutes before tip-off after sleeping under a “questionable” designation.
Jalen Brunson shares what it's like to play alongside Josh Hart in big games together again:— Knicks Videos (@sny_knicks) April 23, 2023
"It's like fairytale stuff" pic.twitter.com/p9rz0kqrwm
The Washington, D.C. native delivered along with his former Villanova teammate.
Hart and Jalen Brunson combined to score 48 points between them, adding 13 rebounds, eight assists, three steals, and a blocked shot. Brunson led the team with 29 points and six dimes. Hart contributed 19 pops. Both played 40+ minutes.
And the New York Knicks are now just one win away from reaching a place they have not inhabited in a decade.
“It’s not over,” Brunson said in his post-game presser. “It’s not even close to being over. We’ve got to continue to just keep focusing on one day at a time.”
Brunson is right in saying “there’s nothing to celebrate,” but please give us a break, man. “Obviously, with one (win) tonight, we’re one step closer, but we’ve got to continue to have that same mindset, that same mentality that we have over the past couple of games.” That’s better.
Jalen Brunson shares the message he has for his teammates after today's win:— Knicks Videos (@sny_knicks) April 23, 2023
"It's not over and not even close to being over. There's nothing to celebrate and nothing to be truly happy about. But, obviously with today's win we are one step closer" pic.twitter.com/pwOxoMMHoj
After a couple of solid quarters, the Knicks collapsed following the halftime break. Whatever J.B. Bickerstaff told his pupils, and the magic he conjured inside the locker room, clearly worked for the Cavs.
“They came back with a vengeance,” Brunson said, “We were able to answer them.”
Cleveland failed to hit the 24-point threshold in the first two quarters of play but broke for 26 points in the third while limiting New York to just 19 through the first 12 minutes after intermission. Everything looked good for a young Cavs squad that didn’t even seem to need an otherworldly performance by superstar Donovan Mitchell, as the guard didn’t bag any buckets in the third quarter.
Only, you know, that’s fool’s gold. Mitchell finished with just two second-half points and a putrid 1-for-9 shooting outing through the last two quarters. On the day, Mitchell shot 5-of-18 with zero treys (four attempts) for a grand total of 11 points. He committed six turnovers.
“I played like shit,” Mitchell said. “I didn’t do a good job... I’ll be better. I’m the leader of this group. Everybody did their job and I didn’t, simple as that and I’ll fix it.
Mitchell acknowledged he “didn’t show up for my guys, ultimately,” while adding that “everybody did their job, we had our faults as a group, but ultimately, I didn’t do what I was supposed to do, and I’ll take that and I got to just be better.”
One leader that did was RJ Barrett, he of the 26 points on 18 shots and no three-balls. Fools were calling out Thibs for giving his 22-year-old guard too long of a leash. Witness them just a couple days later, crying out of love for Broadway Barrett, Duke of York.
"I love everybody! I love RJ Barrett & Jalen Brunson for showing up again, I love the Knicks' defense... And I love Tom Thibodeau for benching Julius Randle because that's what needed to happen."— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) April 23, 2023
Stephen A. Smith was HYPE after the Knicks' Game 4 win pic.twitter.com/69a4hNl1eM
After having his best game (or at least, his most impactful) a few days ago when he carried the Knicks forward in Game 3 against the Cavs, RJ erased the books and re-wrote them to place his G4 gem at the top of his magnum opus list.
“Every time they threw a punch, we threw something back,” Barrett said after the game. “We’re playing extremely hard, making hustle plays,” continued the wing. “The whole team, all the hustle plays we’re making, we’re really together collectively.”
Although he only added a couple of rebounds, an assist, and a block to his 26 points, Barrett’s impact in the game was undeniable once again—plus he committed no turnovers at all. The confidence (as if he needed any more...) is growing in bunches each passing game.
“Super aggressive, downhill, getting to the line,” Thibodeau said about Barrett.
Thibs must be thrilled with this RJ Barrett shot chart. Been so aggressive going to the hoop. Gotten to the line 11 times, too. pic.twitter.com/VLpSvzjNhC— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) April 23, 2023
As Fred Katz highlighted in his piece for The Athletic ($), RJ went to the free-throw line 13 times, and 11 of his shots were layups or dunks, something that Thibs probably was privately drooling about.
It took the Cavs more than 30 minutes to retake the lead from the Knicks after New York went up 15. There was a little back-and-forth, four lead changes, and then a 75-apiece tie that would be the last time Cleveland was close to victory.
Your superheroes took a 77-75 lead—on a delightful Barrett layup contested by presumed defensive stalwart Evan Mobley—and never looked back from that point on.
RJ Barrett appreciation tweet pic.twitter.com/AqKbx1ZAtA— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) April 23, 2023
“Two out of the three games we went out there and just played hard,” Barrett said. “I think the harder-playing team is the one that’s going to win. So we’ve got to be able to bring that fight.”
It’s a shame the boys might not be back at MSG for more than a week, assuming they make it to the second round with a win on Wednesday.
Barrett thinks that the NYK faithful present at The Garden “has been amazing” for the past couple of home games. “It’s been helping a lot, especially just like when we’re going on those runs, it helps us even more,” Barrett claimed. “The crowd, they help us get back into the game. They really threw a crazy punch there. The fans, everybody helped.”
Back at it on Wednesday, this time on the road visiting The Land once more. Tip-off at a reasonable 7:00 ET time. Don’t miss it, we going places.