Jalen Brunson scores career-high 48 points as Knicks beat Cavaliers
CLEVELAND — The Knicks gathered at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on Friday morning for their first planning session on life without Julius Randle, prepping for everything from the immediate — facing the Cavaliers on Friday night — to the long-term prospects of getting through the final five games and possibly the playoffs without their leading scorer.
And while strategy and lineups may have been part of the focus, there was a simpler message. So Jalen Brunson, how many times did Tom Thibodeau say, “We have more than enough to win?”
“A million times,” Brunson said, smiling. “Too much.”
What Brunson didn’t say was that while still wearing a brace on his right hand to protect his own injury, he was the one who would make sure that it was enough. Brunson scored a career-high 48 points to carry the Knicks to a 130-116 win over the Cavaliers, inching the Knicks (45-33) closer to officially securing a playoff berth and taking another step toward ensuring that the playoff series will begin here against the Cavaliers.
“You guys have seen it all year,” Thibodeau said. “I think there’s nothing that he does that surprises you, and it’s a testament to how tough-minded he is. He’s always so mentally tough, particularly when he has adversity. He’s nicked up a little bit, but he’s a machine. He just keeps going. And I think that’s the best leadership you could have. The things that you do each and every day. It’s not phony, it’s not fake. It’s not disingenuous. That’s who he is. He’s authentic. He cares about the team and he cares about winning.”
The Knicks lead the sixth-place Nets by 2 1/2 games and the seventh-place Heat by 4 1/2 games, and their magic number to clinch a playoff spot is one. The only combination that could spoil it is if the Knicks lose all four remaining games, Miami wins all five of its games and the Nets turn it into a three-way tie for the fifth spot.
Brunson, whom the Knicks dreamed of pairing with Donovan Mitchell in the summer before a potential trade for Mitchell fell apart, matched him shot for shot as both teams tried in vain to find a defender to slow the other.
With both teams playing shorthanded — the Knicks missing Randle and the Cavs without Jarrett Allen and Isaac Okoro, two of their best defenders — it was a challenge.
Brunson had 21 points in the first quarter, in which the Cavaliers took a 47-42 lead, and 33 in the half as the Knicks went ahead 79-72. Mitchell had 23 of his 42 points in the first quarter.
Before the game, Thibodeau dismissed the notion that the Knicks would need to change their style because of one reason. “We don’t have to change anything, because really, the offense is managed by Jalen,” he said.
“It’s always a next man up mentality,” RJ Barrett said. “Tonight, Jalen had . Next game, it’s gonna be someone else. We’ll figure it out.”
With the Knicks playing at a faster pace without Randle, they methodically took control of the game in the second half, stretching the lead to 15 in the fourth quarter. They went with Barrett, Josh Hart, Isaiah Hartenstein, Immanuel Quickley and either Deuce McBride or Brunson, and seven of their nine players scored in double figures.
But the deciding factor was Brunson, who had nine assists. After he committed a pair of back-to-back turnovers and the lead was reduced to nine, he sank a three-pointer with 4:27 remaining. And when the lead went down to seven, the Knicks called time and Brunson weaved through an obstacle course of defenders for a layup. He followed that with another three-pointer.
The Knicks also replaced the fire that Randle had been playing with, as Barrett and Obi Toppin had to be separated during a third-quarter timeout, with Thibodeau standing between them as teammates joined in to keep them apart. They did come together in apparent apology as they went back on the court.
“We’re good,” Barrett said. “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.”
Mitchell started the game by hitting his first eight shots before finally missing a three-pointer with 1:29 to play in the first quarter.
“Not fun, because he’s capable of doing that at any given time at any point in the game,” Brunson said of trading baskets with Mitchell. “He’s special for a reason. What he’s able to do on the court night in and night out, it’s truly amazing. It’s a lot of credit to him. For me, I’m just trying to worry about winning a game.”