CLEVELAND -- The New York Knicks are headed to the Eastern Conference semifinals for the first time in 10 years after beating the Cleveland Cavaliers 106-95 on Wednesday night in Game 5 of their first-round series.
As was the case throughout the series, Knicks guard Jalen Brunson led the way for a hungry young team that had control of the game all night. Brunson scored 23 points to go with four assists and four rebounds and repeatedly made big plays when the Knicks needed one.
While the Knicks were very business-like in their celebration Wednesday, Brunson said that getting the franchise its first playoff series win since 2013 was "special," especially because his dad, Rick, played three of his eight NBA seasons for the Knicks.
"It's a really cool experience knowing that my dad played here -- he was on that team that got to the Finals," Brunson said, referring to the 1998-99 team. "It's special. The connection that me and my dad have, everything, all the full circle, it's really special."
Brunson's play continued to stand out against the Cavs. His teammates and coaches weren't surprised he was able to rise to the occasion.
"He's a star player," Knicks super sub Josh Hart said of Brunson, his former Villanova teammate. "He showed that last year in the playoffs. He showed that this whole season, and he's continuing to show it, continuing to prove people wrong, and none of us in that locker room or in that front office or coaching staff is surprised by how he's playing."
Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau took time to recognize the team advancing, but said they still have more to accomplish.
"I've said this many times, the tradition of the Knicks, what it means not only to the city but the league, we have what I feel are the best fans in the world, we have the best city in the world, we have the best arena in the world, and I think the way this team plays resonates with all our fans," he said. "They play hard, they play smart, and they play together, and I think you if you do that in New York it's always recognized. So it's good.
"There's still a lot of work to be done. We have a lot of areas to improve upon, so we're looking forward to the next challenge."
While Brunson led the charge, it was a well-rounded effort that propelled the Knicks on Wednesday. After shooting a combined 6-for-25 from the field in Games 1 and 2 in Cleveland, Knicks swingmanRJ Barretthad another big performance, scoring 21 points to provide a needed lift.
As the series rolled on, it became clear the Knicks were not only a deeper team, but a group that played with the kind of defensive edge that has defined some of the best teams in Thibodeau's career.
Playing in his first playoff series, Hart made a huge difference off the bench throughout the last week and a half, making a series of winning plays that helped close out games. Hart chipped in with 12 more rebounds in Game 5 and was a key cog in the Knicks being able to slow down Donovan Mitchell and the Cavs' offense.
Mitchell Robinson, who had 13 points and 18 rebounds in Game 5, was a force down low against the Cavs. The Knicks outrebounded the Cavs 48-30 on Wednesday and were the more physical team throughout the series.
"When he's out there, he's just relentless," Brunson said of Robinson. "When he goes out there he's so passionate going for rebounds -- and his passion, trying to come over and block shots and be the anchor on defense, what he's done this year has been nothing short of incredible."
Knicks forward Obi Toppin chipped in 12 points and had several key stretches in the series. Knicks guard Immanuel Quickley added 17 points, bouncing back after a very slow offensive start to the series.
That the Knicks were able to close out the series without All-Star forward Julius Randle made Wednesday's win even more impressive. Randle reinjured his left ankle late in the second quarter and did not return. After going a combined 21-for-65 for the series coming into Game 5, Randle appeared to find his rhythm on Wednesday night after a slow start. He finished with 13 points, six assists and four rebounds in 16 minutes before his injury.
Thibodeau said Randle will be reevaluated on Thursday. Randle was in the Knicks' locker room icing his ankle after the win.
"It starts with holding each other accountable, from the coaching staff to the players," Brunson said of the Knicks stepping up when a player goes down with an injury. "I think we all trust each other, most importantly, and we get to the point where we have situations like that and things aren't going according to plan, and we find a way to tough it out and keep moving forward and try not to miss a beat."
Being able to close out this series could be even more important for the Knicks, given the uncertainty surrounding Randle's ankle.
A Heat-Knicks series will provide plenty of storylines, rekindling a long-simmering rivalry. It will also set up an interesting matchup between Thibodeau and Heat star Jimmy Butler. Butler played for Thibodeau when he was coach of both the Chicago Bulls and the Minnesota Timberwolves.
No matter how the next series unfolds, the Knicks will relish playing at least Games 1 and 2 in front of a raucous environment inside Madison Square Garden. The two sellout crowds made a big difference in Games 3 and 4 against the Cavs as the Knicks fed off the energy in the building and were able to pull away from a young Cavs team that never appeared ready for the playoff stage.
Even Brunson knows that gruff Thibodeau is enjoying being able to deliver the Knicks to this stage in the postseason.
"I think it means a lot, something to be happy about in the short term," Brunson said. "Not sure if he'll show that in the short term, but we get to play more basketball, and whenever we get to do that, that gives us another opportunity to get better and move forward and continue to see where we can go."