NEW YORK — The New York Knicks have had so few chances to join the NBA postseason party that they might forget the real fun hasn’t even started yet.
“There’s nothing to celebrate,” Jalen Brunson said. “There’s nothing to be truly happy about.”
One more win and that changes.
Brunson scored 29 points, RJ Barrett had 26 and the Knicks took a 3-1 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers in their first-round series with a 102-93 victory on Sunday.
Josh Hart moved into the starting lineup and added 19 points and seven rebounds for the fifth-seeded Knicks, who can reach the second round for the first time since 2013 with a victory in Cleveland on Wednesday. New York would host Game 6, if necessary, on Friday at what has been a deafening Madison Square Garden during the last two games.
“There’s nothing like a big game at the Garden,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said.
There might be a few more to come, the way his team is defending.
New York forced Cleveland All-Star Donovan Mitchell into one of the worst games of his postseason career, finishing with just 11 points on 5-for-18 shooting. Darius Garland had 23 points and 10 assists for the Cavs, bouncing back nicely after going 4 for 21 in the Knicks’ Game 3 romp. Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert each scored 14 points.
“This (is) not over with,” Mitchell said. “The way we lost sucks. We can’t hang our heads and ultimately give up. We’re not that type of group. Like I said, we’ll be ready for Game 5.”
Barrett was only 6 for 25 in the two games in Cleveland but has been outstanding back at home, where fans chanted his name in the second half. He had five straight points to break the Knicks free from a 75-all tie, then added another basket before Hart scored to push it to 90-81 midway during a stretch when Cleveland could only manage two baskets in more than four minutes.
After limiting the Cavs on Friday to 79 points, the lowest total in an NBA game this season, the Knicks led most of the way in this one to reach the verge of the Eastern Conference semifinals for the first time since beating Boston in 2013.
They’ve only made it back to the playoffs once since then, falling in five games to Atlanta in 2021. But this team is more complete, thanks largely to signing Brunson last summer after he helped Dallas reach the Western Conference finals, then acquiring Hart from Portland during this season.
Starting together for the first time since they were college teammates at Villanova, that duo combined for 20 of the Knicks’ 30 points in the first quarter, which ended with them leading by seven.
New York pushed it into double digits in the second and Brunson’s 3-pointer midway through the period made it 46-31. The Knicks were ahead 54-45.
“During the regular season, we were able to flip some switches and come back in games,” Cleveland coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “This time it just doesn’t present the opportunity to do so.”
But Garland got the first two baskets of the third quarter, set up Cleveland’s next three scores, then had the Cavs’ next two field goals to tie it at 59. His three-point play gave Cleveland a 66-63 lead and he had 11 points and five assists in the period, before Brunson made a 3-pointer with 6.2 seconds left that sent the Knicks to the fourth with a 73-71 edge.
“Jalen hit a huge shot at the end of the third to put us up, so that was big, and fourth quarter, just staying tough,” Barrett said. “Every time they threw a punch, we threw something back.”