CLEVELAND — The Knicks might not have Julius Randle back in time for the start of the playoffs, but the preview of a potential first-round matchup featured a scintillating head-to-head battle between the lead guards of the two teams.
With Randle missing his first game of the season with a sprained left ankle, Jalen Brunson took over the scoring mantel and outdueled All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell as the Knicks all but sealed a playoff berth and a likely first-round matchup with the Cavaliers squad they defeated, 130-116, on Friday night at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
Brunson pumped in 33 of his career-best 48 points in the first half, with seven made 3-pointers in 12 attempts, while adding nine assists. The $104 million point guard fronted seven Knicks in double figures, exceeding his previous scoring high of 44 set on Jan. 9 against the Bucks.
Backup power forward Obi Toppin opened the game in place of Randle and scored 12 points in 19 minutes in his first start of the season. Toppin and RJ Barrett (14 points) also notably had to be separated by Tom Thibodeau and other coaches during an argument at the bench in the third quarter.
Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes also contributed 14 points apiece, and Mitchell Robinson posted 10 with 14 rebounds. The fifth-place Knicks (45-33) lead the Nets — who beat Atlanta on Friday — by 2 ½ games and the seventh-place Heat by 4 ½ with four games remaining. With an extra game left, Miami still potentially can forge a three-way tie with the Knicks and Brooklyn, leaving a minute mathematical chance of the Knicks slipping into the 7-10 play-in scenario via tiebreakers.
Mitchell, who the Knicks attempted to land in a trade last summer with the Jazz, netted 26 in the first two quarters and 42 overall. Darius Garland added 20 points and nine assists for the No. 4 Cavaliers, who played without former Nets big man Jarrett Allen (groin) and Isaac Okoro (knee).
Brunson admitted before the game that Randle’s injury was “terrible timing,” but noted that the Knicks “definitely have more than enough guys that are capable of helping out” with a need to “do it collectively.”
The Knicks have said Randle’s sprained left ankle will be reevaluated in two weeks, with the first round of the playoffs slated to begin on April 15 or 16.
Neither team’s offense could be stopped in the first quarter, with the sides combining to shoot 68.1 percent from the field (32-for-47). Mitchell nailed his first eight shots and netting 23 of the Cavaliers’ 47 in the first — a franchise record for any quarter. Brunson nearly matched Mitchell with 21 on 8-for-11 shooting, as the Knicks only trailed by five through one.
Toppin had gotten the Knicks started with a game-opening 3-pointer and he added another trey later in the quarter.
The Cavaliers led by six early in the second, but the Knicks rattled off nine straight points, including two driving buckets by Josh Hart, for a 59-56 advantage midway through the period. Brunson drained his fourth triple of the half and hit a short runner for a seven-point cushion and 33 points in the two quarters, his career-best output for any half.
Hart also drew a key charge on Mitchell — his third foul — with 3:33 to go, as the Knicks led 79-72 at intermission.
Brunson netted seven more points in the third quarter to reach 40 for the fourth time this season, and the Knicks carried a 105-102 lead into the final period.
Hart’s long-distance bucket, a traditional three-point play by Quickley, a dunk by Deuce McBride and two driving buckets by Barrett helped the Knicks push the lead to 15 with 7:36 left in the fourth.
Caris LeVert’s trey and a dunk by Evan Mobley trimmed the cushion down to seven with 3:08 to go, but Brunson’s layup and subsequent 3-ball boosted his career-total to 48 and replenished the lead to 12 with under two minutes remaining before he missed a pull-up jumper in the closing seconds to fall short of his first career 50-point game.