Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) is tended to after an...

Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) is tended to after an injury in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Sunday, March 3, 2024, in Cleveland. Credit: AP/Sue Ogrocki

CLEVELAND — It seemed innocent enough, the opening offensive set for the Knicks. Jalen Brunson curled off a screen, took a pass near the top of the key and rose for a shot over Isaac Okoro. But before he even launched the shot or landed, something clearly was wrong.

Brunson awkwardly shifted, tossing up an air ball and coming down with his left leg in the air as he tried to avoid landing on it. He rolled over on the court, grasping at his knee and ankle, and then tried to hobble off the court but went down again. The Knicks called a timeout as the training staff ran to help him off the floor and to the locker room.

He never returned to the game, but the Knicks seemed to avoid any of the worst-case scenarios. X-rays were negative and the team termed it a knee contusion.

Without Brunson, the shorthanded Knicks (with four starters now unavailable) fought on against a shorthanded Cavaliers squad without Donovan Mitchell and Caris LeVert. Coach Tom Thibodeau’s insistence of next-man-up was put to the test, and the team responded with a 107-98 win at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

“It’s been really the story of the season,” Thibodeau said. “We’ve been fighting shorthanded since December, so just keep fighting. That’s all we can do, each and every day, is get out there and go as hard as you can.”

That the Knicks did. Donte DiVincenzo picked up the offensive load, scoring 28 points, and Josh Hart did just about everything else. He matched a career high with 19 rebounds and added 13 points and 10 assists in his third triple-double of the season.

Deuce McBride entered the game when Brunson exited, never sat the rest of the game and contributed 16 points and five assists. Bojan Bogdanovich scored 20 points off the bench.

Everything in the game was measured first in response to the scare that could have done in the Knicks’ season as Brunson was helped off the floor. For a player who tries to fight through most injuries, the inability to put any weight on the leg was an alarming sign.

The only possible contact came earlier in the possession when Brunson appeared to bump into Isaiah Hartenstein as he worked his way around his teammate’s screen. But he continued on with only a slight sign of the collision until he rose in the air for the shot.

Hartenstein was asked if he thought his bump with Brunson could have caused it.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I saw him on the video keep running. I didn’t feel much.”

Thibodeau said there is no timetable and that it will depend on how Brunson feels Monday.

“I asked him if he was OK,” DiVincenzo said. “And he said he’ll be fine. And that’s everything to me. Like I said the last time he went down, I don’t worry about Jalen. He’s one of the toughest guys in the league. Whatever it is, he’s going to bounce back. He’s tough as nails.”

Brunson earned his first All-Star berth this season and seemed headed toward a possible All-NBA accolade, too. He entered the night averaging 27.7 points and 6.7 assists per game and had missed only four games.

With injured starters Julius Randle, OG Anunoby and Mitchell Robinson already on extended absences, the Knicks have been reliant on Brunson this season. And without him on Sunday, they saw a momentary slide, scoring only seven points over nearly the first six minutes. But they ran off 13 straight points for a 20-12 lead and trailed by two at halftime.

DiVincenzo took over in the Knicks’ 36-point third quarter, shooting 6-for-7 (4-for-5 from three-point range) and scoring 16 points. Precious Achiuwa added 10 points, and after taking a 15-point lead late in the quarter, the Knicks (36-25) brought an 87-78 lead into the fourth period.

Cleveland (39-21) pulled within three at 99-96 on Darius Garland’s three-pointer with 4:40 to play. Bogdanovic answered with a jumper, but Evan Mobley cut it to three again with 1:59 remaining.

Hart delivered a tightly contested corner three-pointer with 1:36 left, turned to face the Cavaliers’ bench and grabbed at Mitchell’s chain (he was on the bench in street clothes).

“Me just kinda being a competitor and just having fun, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s tough,’ ” Hart said he told the bench. “And then I saw Donovan and obviously that’s my guy and then I saw the chain and I was like, ‘Ooh! That’s nice!’ But nah, I wanna play this game with competitiveness but also grace and joy.”

McBride then delivered the final blow with a corner three-pointer with 33.2 seconds left for the final margin.

“That was a lot of trust Coach put in me and I just wanted to give it my all,” McBride said of the extended playing time. “You never want to jump to any conclusions. You always want everybody to be OK, especially after something like that. You want to think the most positive possible thing. I felt sorry for [Brunson], but you’ve got to go out there and play, perform.”

“He’s got them young legs,” DiVincenzo said of McBride. “It’s really difficult, especially when you’re matched up with Darius Garland. You have to tip your hat off to him being ready, being locked in to play the entire game. But that’s kind of who Deuce is. All season long, whether his number is called or not, he’s one of the hardest workers on the team.”

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