CLEVELAND (AP) — While their only All-Star was back in the locker room getting treatment on his injured ankle, the New York Knicks barely missed a beat.
They didn’t panic or blink. They went to work.
As has been the case for much of this season, the adversity only made this hardened group from New York even tougher.
“Whoever’s on the floor for us is going to play their heart out and give everything they have,” said Knicks forward RJ Barrett, playing with confidence and finally up to expectations. “It’s called a team.”
And the Knicks were the superior one — by far — in rolling over the Cleveland Cavaliers in five games and advancing to the second round of the NBA playoffs for just the second time since 2000, when Jeff Van Gundy was their coach.
New York, which has spent years stuck in mediocrity or worse, closed out the series with an impressive 106-95 win on Wednesday night.
Jalen Brunson scored 23 points, adding an exclamation point to his first series for the Knicks, and Barrett added 21. Mitchell Robinson was a monster on the backboards with 18 rebounds — 11 offensive — and New York got major contributions from reserves Immanuel Quickley (17 points) and Obi Toppin (12).
Despite losing Julius Randle late in the first half when he aggravated a sprained left ankle that’s bothered him for weeks, the Knicks landed the final body blows to put away the inexperienced Cavs, who will spend the offseason healing from physical and psychological bruises inflicted upon them.
This series was supposed to be close, and wasn’t.
New York came in as underdogs. The Knicks left as top dogs.
They dominated the Cavs in every conceivable way, but especially with a punishing, physical brand of ball New York coach Tom Thibodeau has made his career calling card.
Like the city that never sleeps, these New Yorkers were tireless.
“The way this team plays resonates with all our fans,” Thibodeau said. “They play hard, they play smart, and they play together, and if you do that in New York it’s always recognized. … There’s still a lot of work to be done. We have a lot of areas to improve upon, so we’re looking forward to the next challenge.”
Next is a matchup with the Miami Heat, who stunned the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in five games. The Knicks will host Game 1 on Sunday inside Madison Square Garden, which quivered with sound last weekend and shook the Cavs.
There’s never been any love lost between the Heat and Knicks, fierce playoff rivals who met several times in the late 1990s and most recently in 2012. New York won the season series 3-1.
Randle’s injury could be a concern.
New York’s leading scorer was finally moving and cutting the way he was before he initially rolled his ankle last month, forcing him to miss the final five games of the regular season. His status was in question before the Cleveland series, but he was clearly not the same and Thibodeau benched him for the fourth quarter in Game 4.
When he limped off before halftime in Game 5, it briefly appeared the Knicks might be going home up 3-2.
But Brunson, who outplayed Cavs star Donovan Mitchell for the second straight postseason, kept New York composed and Toppin replaced Randle and scored his dozen, which included a couple thunderous dunks.
“Next-man-up mentality,” Brunson said.
After the game, Brunson proudly wore a T-shirt with New York legend John Starks dunking on the front. The 26-year-old grew up around the Knicks as his father, Rick, played three of his eight seasons in New York.
This meant a little more to Brunson, who has been everything the Knicks could have hoped when they signed him last summer.
He was the best player on the floor in the series, but that didn’t stop Knicks super sub Josh Hart from hitting him with some playful jabs.
“He’s undersized. Overrated. Overpaid,” joked Hart, whose acquisition at the trade deadline gave New York some needed depth. “He’s a star player. He showed that last year in the playoffs. He showed that this whole season, and he’s continuing to show it, continuing to prove people wrong, and none of us in that locker room or in that front office or coaching staff is surprised by how he’s playing.”
Hart reached across the table toward Brunson, who was also his teammate at Villanova.
“You’re an All-Star,” Hart said, playfully.
“Don’t touch me,” Brunson said.
The Cavs couldn’t.
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