Jalen Brunson outplayed Donovan Mitchell in a classic duel as the New York Knicks wrapped up their season series against the Cleveland Cavaliers with a 130-116 win Friday night at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.
Brunson dropped a career-high 48 points, while Mitchell came up short with 42 in a losing effort, reminiscent of their playoff duel when they were still in the Western Conference last season.
Brunson was last year’s playoffs breakout star when he helped the Dallas Mavericks to a 4-2 series win over Mitchell and his former team, Utah Jazz.
Both stars are on a collision course anew, this time in the Eastern Conference, as the Knicks move one victory or a Miami Heat loss away from officially clinching a playoff berth.
Brunson had a big hand on that.
Without the injured Julius Randle, their leading scorer and the league leader in first-quarter points, Brunson stepped up and set the tone for the Knicks. He had a career-best 21 points in the opening quarter and 31 at halftime.
It was Brunson’s fourth regular-season 40-point game of his career and the first time in Knicks history that two different players scored 48 or more points. Randle dropped 57 points in a loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves more than a week ago.
Jalen Brunson Is a Machine
Brunson’s masterclass includes 18-of-32 shooting from the field and 7 3-pointers. He ended up one assist shy of a double-double performance.
His career night came just two games back from a right hand injury and a foot injury earlier this month. He had a brace to protect his right hand. But that did not stop him. Not even the Cavaliers’ swarming defense.
“You guys have seen it all year. There’s nothing he does that surprises you,” New York coach Tom Thibodeau said during his postgame interview. “It’s a testament to how tough-minded he is. He is so mentally tough, particularly when he’s facing adversity.”
Brunson’s leadership on and off the court has dramatically transformed the Knicks into a serious playoff contender after coming up short last season.
“He’s nicked up a little bit. But he’s a machine,” Thibodeau added. “He just keeps going. 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. He’s authentic. He cares about the team. He cares about winning.”
Knicks Sustain Sharp 4th Quarter Defense
Six more Knicks players joined Brunson in double-digit scoring in the game that started as free-flowing but tightened up in the fourth quarter.
After the Knicks held the Heat to 16 fourth-quarter points in their previous win, they held the Cavaliers this time to 14. They pulled away for good with a back-breaking 13-3 run for a 120-107 lead with 6:25 left.
The Cavaliers ran out of steam.
The Knicks limited the Cavaliers to a dismal 26.3% shooting in the fourth quarter and 2-of-8 from behind the arc.
Obi Toppin Earns 1st Start of the Season
Obi Toppin started in place of Randle but only played 18 minutes and got benched in the fourth quarter. He scored 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting, but he only had one rebound and was a team-worst minus-4.
Thibodeau leaned heavily on RJ Barrett and Josh Hart to fill Randle’s big shoes. Barrett had 14 points and 7 rebounds, while Hart contributed 11 points and 7 rebounds.
A Heat loss to the Dallas Mavericks Saturday night will officially put the Knicks back in the playoffs. If not, they could clinch it with a victory against the visiting Washington Wizards on Sunday.