CLEVELAND — If this was a preview of a first-round playoff game, expect a mountain of points and a thrilling guard battle.
Jalen Brunson won his game against Donovan Mitchell and the Knicks outlasted the Cavaliers on Friday night, 130-116, running away in the fourth quarter in their first game without an injured Julius Randle.
Brunson dropped a career-high 48 points and MItchell added 42. The back-and-forth felt like a duel, with some thrilling finishes and little regard for perimeter defense. In a microcosm of the evening, Mitchell blasted off for a dunk with about five minutes left, which cut Cleveland’s deficit into single digits. And Brunson immediately responded with a 3-pointer to bury the home team at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.
“You guys have seen him all year. I don’t think there’s anything he does that surprises you, and that’s a testament to his toughness of spirit,” Tom said. Thibodeau: “He’s always so strong mentally, especially when he’s having adversity. He’s a bit notched, but he’s a machine. He just keeps going. And I think that’s the best leadership you can have The things you do every day. It’s not bogus, it’s not fake. It’s not dishonest. It’s who he is. He’s genuine.
The New York point guard had the last laugh as Thibodeau finally unlocked a defense to thwart Mitchell in the fourth quarter. Brunson finished with nine assists and shot 18 for 32, including 7 or 12 from beyond the arc.
Mitchell shot 16 for 23.
The victory moved the No. 5 Knicks (45-33) within three games of the No. 4 Cavs (48-30), but, more importantly, maintained their 2 ½ game advantage over the No. 6 Nets (42-35).
Randle, who is out for the rest of the regular season (and possibly some of the playoffs), has been replaced in the roster by Obi Toppin, who has struggled enough defensively to log just 19 minutes (including zero in fourth quarter).
The Knicks outscored the Cavs in the final period, 25-14.
“We gave [Mitchell] everything we could,” Thibodeau said. “Sometimes we blitzed, sometimes we showed. We gave them different looks and they still pulled it off. And then as the game progressed, I just tried to make them work for their points.
The new range also brought some hostility. TV cameras caught a tense exchange between Obi Toppin and RJ Barrett during a timeout in the third quarter. It appeared Barrett was angered by something Toppin said and stood up to lash out at his teammate.
They were held back and the teammates calmed him down in the locker room.
“It probably happens more than people realize. Heat of the moment,” said Thibodeau. “It dissipated immediately. If there’s a flare-up, go talk to yourself. When they got together, I knew they were fine. And continue. Win the game. When everyone wants to win, sometimes there is a difference of opinion. Just put the team first and they did.
Mitchell was excellent but only managed four points in the fourth quarter when he was bottled up by a combination of Josh Hart’s intense on-the-ball defense and quick traps.
Before the game, Thibodeau explained why Mitchell is so hard to guard and it sounded prophetic hours later.
“He was always dynamic. He had that part down,” Thibodeau said. “But I think three years ago he made a major change by shooting more 3s. And that opened up his driving game. He’s very tough, he’s sneaky. He can go through pick-and- rolls. He can split pick-and-rolls. And I think adding to his game has really changed his game. He’s great at dribbling. He’s versatile in the sense that he can get off the ball and on the ball. So you have to be ready for both. And he’s not afraid. He’s a great competitor.”
The Knicks’ new starters with Toppin were beaten early while giving up 22 runs in the opening 5 1/2 minutes, prompting Thibodeau to burn a timeout.
Mitchell made his first eight shots — including three treys — and scored 23 points in the first quarter. The only thing holding him back was the big trouble. Brunson responded with his own 21-point first quarter, the most he’s ever scored in a single period. His 33 in the first half was also a career high.
On both sides, defense was optional and mostly ignored. The dribblers navigated the screens to easily access the paint. The score of the first quarter was historically offensive: Cavs 47, Knicks 42.
It was the most points the Cavaliers scored in any quarter.
Some of it was the product of Randle’s absence. The Knicks entered with a bottom-5 ranking on pace, which suits Randle’s half-court game. Randle’s elimination translated into speedball on Friday.
“Whoever you have – and I think that’s a big part of running an effective offense, what are the strengths of the people you have?” said Thibodeau. “Play to your strengths and cover your weaknesses.”
The stakes were high and the Knicks rose to the occasion in the fourth quarter.
“We know the importance of that,” said Cavs guard Darius Garland, who scored 20 points in 38 minutes. “We know the mentality they’re going to bring, because they’re a bit behind us. We know what we are getting into.