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NBA playoffs: Knicks’ grit, Jalen Brunson’s superstar performance shine through in moment of greatest need

NEW YORK — Maybe Tom Thibodeau should’ve issued a spoiler alert.

Speaking with reporters at Madison Square Garden before a do-or-die Game 5, the Knicks head coach described his team’s second-round matchup with the Heat as “a hard-fought series [in which] points are hard to come by.” That trend certainly continued early Wednesday in a first quarter that felt for all the world like a continuation of Game 4.

The run of play was physical and nasty, as exemplified by Bam Adebayo clocking Julius Randle in the eye while fighting for a rebound on Miami’s second possession, leaving the Knicks All-Star huddled in the corner and necessitating a New York timeout less than a minute into the game. The brusque resumption of pleasantries left Randle with a sizable shiner; he said after the game that he “couldn't really see anything” for a while afterward.

“It’s the price of war, I guess,” Randle said.

This particular battle — in the early going, at least — was fought with rocks. Neither team could throw the ball in the ocean to start the game, combining to shoot 14-for-42 from the field and 4-for-18 from 3-point land. But as they had late in Game 4, Miami imposed its will on the offensive glass, generating nearly as many second-chance points (13) as New York had overall (14) in the opening stanza, which allowed Jimmy Butler and Co. to take a double-digit lead into the second quarter.

Luckily for Knicks fans, though, “points are hard to come by” wasn’t the only spoiler Thibs laid down before the game.

“Usually, it's the intangibles,” he said. “The first two games, we rebounded the ball extremely well; the last two, we have not. So, you know, look at what happens. What separates you? Oftentimes, it's a hustle play — a turnover, offensive rebound — and that's the difference.”

All that was needed, then, was to find that difference — that hustle play, that rebound, that change of possession, that made shot — that could revive both a home team and a home crowd that the Heat and the circumstances had hydraulic-press-squeezed of any juice. The Knicks found it — and started the process of separating themselves and saving their season — by trying harder, jumping higher, running faster and generally applying a heaping helping of effort, force, and will:

The 18-2 run that New York ripped off in the first three minutes of the second quarter didn’t end Game 5 by any stretch; in fact, Miami answered it with a 9-0 run of its own to re-take the lead midway through the frame. It still mattered, though.

After a dismal end to Game 4 that had Randle, named to the All-NBA third team just before tipoff but still very much a trick-or-treat postseason performer, wondering aloud if the Heat just “want it more,” the spirited play of a mix-and-match New York lineup featuring stalwart starters (Jalen Brunson, R.J. Barrett, Quentin Grimes) and energetic reserves (Obi Toppin, Isaiah Hartenstein) got the Knicks back into the fight. Brunson attacking Duncan Robinson — one of the only weak defensive links in Miami’s rotation — in the pick-and-roll got the Heat on their heels, creating opportunities for swing-swing ball movement that created good looks. That, in turn, got the point guard into an offensive groove that he’d stay locked into all night:

No matter what Miami threw at Brunson — drop coverage, high hedges, blitzes, late switches, you name it — he handled it with patience, poise and a steady diet of buckets, pouring in 38 points on 12-for-22 shooting to go with 9 rebounds, 7 assists and only 1 turnover in 48 minutes.

Yes, that’s right: With the Knicks’ season on the line, Brunson went the distance.

“What could you say about the guy?” Thibodeau said after the game. “He's just incredible. You know, all-around player. Great leader. Great toughness — mental toughness, physical toughness. Ability to think on his feet. Ability to lead. Ability to connect with people, to bring the best out of people. That's what makes him special, and it's play after play.”

Brunson became just the fourth Knick ever to score 30 or more three times in one playoff series, joining legends Bernard King, Patrick Ewing and Carmelo Anthony. He did it while initiating damn near every offensive possession, while chasing Miami movement shooters like Robinson and Max Strus around, and while knowing that any misstep or cold snap could mean the end of New York’s season. It was a Herculean task. He was equal to it.

“I've never seen anyone work the way he does, and he does it in front of everyone,” Thibodeau said. “He does it in our gym. Does it all summer long. He does it at a game speed. He never has to adjust in the game because of the way he prepares himself. He conditions himself to play big minutes. Just a tremendous leader.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 10: Jalen Brunson #11 of the New York Knicks dribbles against Jimmy Butler #22, Caleb Martin #16 and Kyle Lowry #7 of the Miami Heat during the fourth quarter in game five of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in the 2023 NBA Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 10, 2023 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Three Heat defenders were not enough to stop Jalen Brunson on Wednesday night. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

During that second-quarter stretch, Toppin led in his way, too, sparking a collective effort on the glass — he had five rebounds in the quarter, four of them on the defensive end — to keep Miami from extending possessions. Crucially, it also allowed the Knicks to try to find some easy early offense in a series where — say it with me, Thibs — points have been hard to come by. And Toppin sprinting the floor on one of those push-off-the-miss possessions, combined with Brunson actually spotting him on the run and lofting him a lob, gave the MSG faithful the evening’s first reason to exult rather than groan.

Taken together, it turned a game that was starting to feel like a fait accompli into more of a 50/50 ball — one that anyone could grab, if they were willing to just dive for the friggin’ thing. On Wednesday, the Knicks were willing; in a related story, their season isn’t over after a 112-103 victory as the Heat lead the series 3-2.

“Obi came in and gave us some energy, man,” said Barrett, who continued his strong offensive play in this series with 26 points on 8-for-17 shooting, including a 3-for-8 mark from 3-point range and 7-for-8 shooting at the free-throw line. “He's getting rebounds, running the floor, and then we’re able to get some transition buckets, which helped us a lot. And then we were just moving the ball and playing all together, so, you know, that was huge.”

Not least of which because, as Randle told it, watching the second-quarter surge from the bench helped get him going.

“Seeing the guys go out there and compete the way they did energized me,” he said. “I started to feel a little bit better after that.”

Started to play better, too. After a sluggish 1-for-7 start, Randle made his presence felt, drawing three fouls to get himself to the line and hitting a step-back 3-pointer in Adebayo’s mug to give the Knicks a 50-47 lead heading into halftime. He followed that up with an excellent third quarter full of effort plays, timely shots, and smart drive-and-kick playmaking that helped fuel a 23-5 run that put New York up by 19 points midway through the third.

“I liked the way he attacked the basket,” Thibodeau said of Randle, who’d finish with 24 points on 7-for-13 shooting (including a postseason-high 4 triples), 5 rebounds and 5 assists in 36 minutes. “I thought he had really good balance tonight, made good reads.”

Grimes played a balanced game, too: 24 minutes in the first half, and 24 more in the second, joining Brunson on the double shift without a breather.

(This, Thibodeau swears, was not the plan; he meant to get Brunson and Grimes a breather at the start of the second quarter. But he “knew we couldn’t do that” after Josh Hart picked up three fouls in just five first-quarter minutes, with Barrett also picking up an early pair. “If we win, I'm OK with it,” Brunson said.)

After starting this series logging just 10 minutes off the bench coming off a shoulder injury suffered in Round 1 against Cleveland, Grimes has become indispensable for Thibodeau. He’s both New York’s best floor-spacing catch-and-shoot wing and its best defensive option on Miami menace Butler, whom he helped limit to a postseason-low 19 points on 5-for-12 shooting.

“He's probably been one of the — probably the best player in the playoffs so far,” Grimes said. “So just knowing that I’m going to have that matchup every night, you’ve got to be a little more disciplined. If I’ve got to play 48 [minutes] or 25, really doesn't matter to me. I’ve just got to make sure I lock in on him defensively, and try to do whatever I can to slow him down.”

Slowing down Butler and the Heat attack starts with New York’s own offense, which looked a bit more like itself in Game 5.

The Knicks got back to generating second-chance opportunities, rebounding nearly 39% of their misses Wednesday — including more than 48% in the half-court, according to Cleaning the Glass — with centers Mitchell Robinson and Hartenstein combining for nine. They also pounded Miami off the bounce, repeatedly forcing the issue, drawing contact and getting themselves to the charity stripe for 40 free throws — more than twice as many as Miami took.

“They kind of took away our aggression because we kept fouling. And that's on us, it's not really on them,” Butler said. “You just got to do better — staying in front of the ball, not reaching as much, contesting shots, all the little things. We can easily correct that. We will correct that. We have to correct that if we want to win.”

Even with Brunson turning in a superstar performance, Randle and Barrett offering complementary scoring and playmaking, and the return of New York’s offensive rebounding machine, the Heat were still right there — winnowing the Knicks’ 19-point lead all the way down to 2 with just under three minutes to go behind a hail of Duncan Robinson 3-pointers. Cash in a couple more of the clean looks they created in Game 5 — Kevin Love and Gabe Vincent combined to go 0-for-10 from deep, regression to the mean crashing down on them all at once after red-hot shooting earlier in the series — and maybe the Heat are already on to the conference finals.

“Oh yeah,” a smiling Butler said when asked if he was pleased with the shots Miami generated in Game 5. “Every time. We’re going to continue to take those shots. We're going to make those shots.”

And, after playing the entire second half in Game 5, if he’s got to match Brunson, Grimes and whoever else Thibodeau decides needs to go bell-to-bell back in Miami on Friday, Butler insists he’s ready to do it.

“If Spo tells me to play 48 minutes, I will be suited and booted and ready to do that,” Butler said. “And we’ll win.”