CLEVELAND (AP) — With All-Star Julius Randle back in New York, the Knicks needed someone to step up.
Jalen Brunson did that, and more.
New York’s point guard scored a career-high 48 points and the Knicks moved closer to a playoff berth while waiting for Randle to get healthy, outrunning the Cleveland Cavaliers 130-116 on Friday night.
“There is nothing that Jalen does that surprises you,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He’s so mentally tough. He’s nicked up a little bit, but he’s a machine. He just keeps going.”
Brunson credited his teammates and coaches for his big night, which included seven 3-pointers and nine assists. He finished 18 of 32 from the floor.
“They had confidence in me and the ball just went through the hole,” said Brunson, who scored 44 in a loss to Milwaukee on Jan. 9. “I just kept shooting with confidence and that’s just how it went.”
The Knicks reduced their magic number to one in their first game without Randle, who sprained his left ankle Wednesday and will miss the rest of the regular season. New York hopes he’ll be back for the postseason and a potential first-round matchup against the Cavs.
New York won the season series 3-1 and denied Cleveland a chance to lock up home-court advantage in the first round.
“This loss hurts,” said Donovan Mitchell, who led Cleveland with 42 points. “We need to feel it and be ready to use it when the time comes. Obviously, we control our destiny and we’ll probably see these guys in two weeks.
“There is a lot of film to go through. But if we let this affect us, we have no chance in the playoffs.”
Leading by three, the Knicks outscored the Cavs 14-2 to open the fourth and get some breathing room in a game played at a frenetic pace. The teams combined for 89 points in the first quarter and 151 in the first half.
The Cavs got within 123-116 before Brunson put the Cavs away with a layup following a timeout and then a 3-pointer. He missed a floater in the final seconds that would have given him 50 points.
Did he want 50?
“Who wouldn’t?” he said. “I was going to hold the ball out, but they doubled and I guess that means keep playing. No disrespect to them. They played to the buzzer. I have the most respect in the world for that coaching staff. You got to keep playing.”
Brunson, who averages 23.6 points, scored 33 in a wild first half without much defense.
The teams combined for 89 points in the first quarter, tying the third most in the first 12 minutes of a game in NBA history. The record of 91 is shared by Utah and Denver (1982), and Miami and Washington (2021).
Also, Cleveland’s 47 points in the first quarter were the most in the franchise’s 53-year history.
The Cavs were without two of their top defenders, center Jarrett Allen (groin) and Isaac Okoro (knee).
The Knicks had a moment of drama.
During a timeout in the third quarter, New York starters RJ Barrett and Obi Toppin got into a shouting match and had to be separated.
Thibodeau downplayed the conflict.
“The cameras are everywhere and it probably happens more than people realize,” Thibodeau said. “It was the heat of the moment. Sometimes, there is a difference of opinion, but those guys are fine with each other. These things happen.”
Later, in the locker, Toppin had his arm around a smiling Barrett.
“This is my brother,” Toppin said. “We’re good.”
The Knicks will re-evaluate Randle in two weeks, ahead of the playoffs, which start on April 15 or 16.
Thibodeau said the 30-year-old forward, who started the Knicks’ first 77 games, is in good spirits and working toward his return.
“He’s done all he can to prepare himself to play in every game, which is a credit to him. He doesn’t miss practice. He doesn’t miss games. I’m actually surprised it doesn’t happen more than it does,” Thibodeau said.
Knicks: New York is one of five East teams — and four in the Atlantic Division — with a winning road record. ... G Derrick Rose (illness) was unavailable for the third consecutive game. The 14th-year veteran fell out of the rotation in December and has only played 141 seconds in 2023.
Cavaliers: Mitchell has 11 games of at least 40 points, breaking the previous team record for one season held by LeBron James (2005-6). ... Allen, who averages 9.9 rebounds, missed his second straight game. He recently sat out four games with a bruised right eye. ... Cleveland remains two shy of its first 50-win season since 2018.
Knicks: Host Washington on Sunday.
Cavaliers: Host Indiana on Sunday.