Knicks-Cavs showcase intensity that can come in playoffs
CLEVELAND — No matter how much it may have felt like it, Friday night’s win for the Knicks over the Cavaliers was not Game 1 of the playoffs. It was not a homecourt stealing victory and maybe it didn’t even provide a hint of what will come if — almost certainly when — the two teams meet in the first round of the playoffs.
After all, it was Game 78 for the Knicks and it was their first without Julius Randle all season. The Cavs were missing two of their key defensive pieces in Jarrett Allen and Isaac Okoro. And if a playoff game featured the sort of offensive explosions that this game put on display it might be time to revisit the rule changes that have allowed the league to treat 40-point efforts the way a 20-point night used to be.
“They don’t got Jarrett Allen,” Josh Hart said. “They don’t got Okoro. We don’t got Ju. Maybe some of the individual things you see on both sides and you get a feel for it. But I think both teams are going to play totally different.”
Still, when it’s two weeks away from that first-round series and these two seem to be lining up, there are messages to be sent. And in the 48-point effort from Jalen Brunson, the 130-116 Knicks win and the way the Knicks found a way to clamp down on Donovan Mitchell late in the game, there were lessons learned.
The Knicks certainly hope that Randle will be back — his current schedule to be reevaluated in two weeks would at least provide a glimmer of hope that he could get back. But they also saw that their faster-paced lineup can function without him at times and in putting Hart on Mitchell in the second half at least slowed him down.
“I think it’s even more important because this is the team we’re probably going to see,” Mitchell said. “Obviously, we’re missing people, they’re missing people, but still the same competition, competitiveness. They played well, they did a lot of things well, played together in different ways. We’ll be better.”
The lesson that Mitchell took — one he knew but hopes that his teammates without playoff experience will learn. The Knicks upped their level in the second half and the game turned. Cleveland scored 14 points in the fourth quarter and Mitchell had just one field goal. So what changed?
“Not a damn thing,” Hart said. “Same [stuff] I did the first quarter, the second quarter, the third quarter, the fourth quarter. Me personally, I did the same thing every time. He’s a really good offensive player so he’s going to torch me some plays and I’m going to lock him up some plays. That’s how it is when you’re guarding some of the best offensive players.
“I’ve been guarding him for six years. So I’ve guarded him in the season. He spends a lot of time in Miami. We play pickup together . . . We didn’t set it up differently, we just executed. We just executed it better. That was the biggest thing.”
“I think the refs started calling it like a playoff game,” Mitchell said. "Don’t think they did anything different. That’s just something guys have to get used to. Understanding that certain things aren’t going to [be called]. You have to finish through contact, you can hit people, can hold. Certain things you can’t teach and that’s one of them.”
It may mean nothing. The two may not even meet in the playoffs — although the Knicks magic number to secure a playoff berth after the win Friday was one, either a Knicks win or a Miami Heat loss, and it’s a long shot that they can be caught for the fifth seed. Still, seeds are planted.
“You can take out whatever you choose to take out of it,” Tom Thibodeau said. “For us, I want the focus. I don't want to change it. Concentrate on improvement, concentrate on understanding what wins and what loses. And if we fall short, let's make our corrections and get better for the next game. But get ready for the next game. So after tonight, then it's just the next step.”
Still, for Mitchell, it certainly will have some meaning. Growing up a Knicks fan in Westchester County fuels it, and the Knicks failed efforts to trade for him serves as an accelerant.
“It’s full circle. Wouldn’t want it any other way,” he said. “What kid wouldn’t want to grow up and play against this hometown team in the playoffs? I like to try to move away from this summer, it happened, I’m here and I’m glad to be here. I’m pretty sure when I go to New York I’m going to get asked the same questions over and over again. But I’m glad to be a part of this group, glad to be with this team and I think for me personally, who wouldn’t want it any other way.
“It’s a storyline. I think it’s something that’s really special and near and dear to me being able to play in a playoff game in front of my friends and family. A team that I grew up watching. Against a guy that’s an assistant coach over there who kind of basically taught me everything I know at this point. So it’s great. I’m excited for the challenge. It’s going to be a lot of fun — if that happens.”
Whether it was the temper tantrums from Randle that had him with four technical fouls in a seven-game span — a stretch that was bookended by having words on the court with teammates and staff — or the dust-up Friday when RJ Barrett and Obi Toppin had to be separated during a timeout, it seems like the Knicks are, let’s politely say reaching playoff intensity.
But they insisted that this episode, caught on camera with Barrett rising off the bench to confront Toppin and Thibodeau having to hold one hand in the chest of each of them to keep them apart while teammates and assistant coaches rushed to pull them away, was nothing to see.
“The cameras are everywhere,” Thibodeau said. “It probably happens more than people realize. Heat of the moment. It dissipated immediately. If there’s a flare-up, go talk to each other. When they walked out together, I knew they were fine. And just move on. Win the game. When everyone wants to win, sometimes there’s a difference of opinion. Just put the team first and that’s what they did.”
Barrett and Toppin had made up by the time they were back on the court and both downplayed it after, Barrett coming over as Toppin spoke to the media and putting his arm around Toppin and posing for pictures. Mostly, they were laughing at the notion of Thibodeau separating them.
“Yeah. I really didn’t know it was him,” Barrett said of Thibodeau. “I’ve got to see what happened. I didn’t see it.
“We’re good. We see each other basically every day. You tell me that you haven’t had an argument with a family member before. You know what I’m saying? You had an argument with a family member before. That was all it was. Right after the timeout we squashed it. I think he scored six straight points after that, so something worked.”
Brunson set a career-high with the 48 points Friday, as well as scoring the most he’d ever scored in a quarter with 21 in the first, then the most ever in a half with 33 in the first half. But it wasn’t the most he’d ever scored in a game at any level. Asked for that, he immediately replied, “57 in high school.”
It was noted that he had that answer on the tip of his tongue he just said, “Of course.”