CLEVELAND — Once he and his teammates were done finishing off the Cavs, Jalen Brunson slipped on a T-shirt with a photo of former Knicks All-Star John Starks on the front screaming while hanging from the rim.
Before looking ahead, New York remembered its past – the good and the bad.
For only second time in 23 years, the Knicks are moving on in the NBA playoffs.
Brunson scored 23 points, RJ Barrett added 21 and New York showed its toughness and depth while downing the Cleveland Cavaliers 106-95 in Game 5 on Wednesday night to advance to the second round for the first time since 2013.
The Knicks easily controlled a series that was more one-sided than expected, even after Julius Randle aggravated his left ankle injury and missed the second half.
The series victory had extra meaning for Brunson, whose father, Rick, played point guard for the Knicks from 1999-2001.
“I thought about that today. It’s a really cool experience, knowing that my Dad played here,” Brunson said. “He didn’t lead that team, but he was on that team that got to the Finals. It’s special and the connection with my Dad and everything, it’s all full circle. It’s really special.”
New York won the opener at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, overpowered the Cavs twice at noisy Madison Square Garden and then returned to Cleveland to finish the job. The fifth-seeded Knicks will meet the Miami-Milwaukee winner next.
Brunson was the consistent ingredient throughout the series for the Knicks, who signed the stocky guard as a free agent last summer before their attempt to acquire Donovan Mitchell in a trade from Utah fell apart and he landed in Cleveland.
Brunson averaged 24 points in the series and led New York in scoring all four wins while outplaying Mitchell for the second straight postseason. Last year, Brunson was with Dallas when he got the best of Mitchell.
Only a month ago, it appeared the Knicks’ season was in serious trouble. Brunson missed 10 games down the stretch with hand and foot injuries and Randle sat out with a sprained ankle.
But New York got healthy and is suddenly a major threat in the wide-open East. Depending on the outcome of the Heat-Bucks series, the Knicks could host Game 1 as early as Sunday.
The Garden will rock deeper into the spring, and that’s all coach Tom Thibodeau and his gritty team could ask for.
“The tradition of the Knicks, not only what it means to the city and the league,” he said. “We have the best fans, best city, best arena. They respond to the way this team plays. It plays hard. It plays smart and it plays together.”
Mitchell scored 28 and Darius Garland 21 for the Cavs, who won 51 games during the regular season but whose inexperience showed throughout their first playoff series in five years. The Cavs weren’t ready.
A bigger issue, though, seemed to be Cleveland’s toughness. The Cavs got pushed around and outrebounded in all four losses, including 48-30 in the clincher.
“For it to end this way, it doesn’t feel right,” Mitchell said. “They outplayed us. It’s as simple as that. They did their job and we didn’t. For me, personally, I don’t feel like I was the player I needed to be for this group. I just didn’t deliver.”
New York center Mitchell Robinson finished with`18 rebounds – 11 offensive – in Game 5 and the 7-footer didn’t shy away from calling out the Cavs for being soft after Game 3, saying they appeared to be shaken.
“We weren’t physical enough,” Garland said. “We didn’t punch first. We were always getting punched.”
Cleveland hoped to recapture some of its 2016 magic and overcome a 3-1 deficit like LeBron James and the Cavs did in the NBA Finals to shock Golden State. But Brunson, Barrett and the rest of the Knicks had other plans.
They closed out the Cavs in the second half without Randle.
The All-Star forward left late in the second quarter after aggravating a sprained left ankle and didn’t return. Obi Toppin started in his place and scored 12 points in the third quarter as the Knicks opened an 18-point lead.
New York never let Cleveland get closer than six in the fourth, much to the delight of several hundred Knicks fans who celebrated behind their bench.
Randle was moving as well as he had in the series before going down.
After trying to block Caris LeVert’s jumper, he landed awkwardly and stayed on the floor for a few minutes while being checked. Randle was helped to his feet but defiantly walked off the floor and to the locker room for treatment.
Turns out, the Knicks didn’t need him and he’ll now have extra time recover.
Thibodeau said Randle will undergo further tests on Thursday.