CLEVELAND (AP) — Julius Randle joked about being out of shape and Josh Hart walked into the postgame news conference wearing a T-shirt with a photo of teammate Jalen Brunson on the front.
The Knicks could finally relax.
Finally at full strength, and following a worrisome few weeks, New York’s season looks much brighter.
Brunson shook off foul trouble and scored 21 of his 27 points in the second half, Randle returned from an ankle injury to add 19 — and a critical final rebound — and the Knicks welcomed Cleveland back to the NBA playoffs by holding off the Cavaliers 101-97 on Saturday night in Game 1.
Brunson was limited to nine minutes in the first half, but hit several big shots down the stretch as the Knicks turned back Cleveland’s late rally led by All-Star Donovan Mitchell, who finished with 38 points.
With the Knicks clinging to a 99-97 lead, Brunson missed a pullup with nine seconds left and Randle bailed out New York with his 10th rebound — and the team’s 17th offensive board — that led to Quentin Grimes making two free throws to seal the win.
“You can’t say enough about the monster rebound Julius made at the end,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “That rebound was huge. Huge.”
Randle hadn’t played since March 29 because of a sprained left ankle, and said he was thankful he had enough energy for one last jump.
“You see me breathing out there today?” said Randle, who played 34 minutes. “I was tired as hell. But it was just about winning at that point.”
Randle was reminded that the Knicks had a similar play in Game 1 against Atlanta in 2021 but didn’t come up with the ball.
“Funny how things turn, right,” he said.
Game 2 is Tuesday at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.
Mitchell scored 14 points in the fourth, but it wasn’t enough for the young Cavs, who disappointed a raucous, towel-waving Cleveland crowd that hadn’t seen a playoff game since the 2018 NBA Finals.
It’s been a long road back for Cleveland, which wasn’t as hurt by its inexperience as lack of production from the bench.
“First off, this isn’t the end of the world. We got to go get one right back,” Mitchell said. “There’s no room to sit here and feel sorry or feel upset and get down. It’s one game. We will respond.”
Hart added 17 points — and hit a big 3-pointer down the stretch — and 10 rebounds in his playoff debut for New York, whose reserves outscored the Cavs 37-14.
Darius Garland scored 17 points and Jarrett Allen had 14 points and 14 rebounds for Cleveland. Evan Mobley had eight points of 4-of-13 shooting.
Randle missed New York’s final five games after rolling his ankle on March 29, and the injury threatened to thwart New York’s playoff hopes. However, he improved this week despite not taking much contact in practice and looked like himself from the outset.
His presence lifted the Knicks.
“Seeing No. 30 out there was just a great sight,” said Obi Toppin, who scored nine points in the third quarter.
Brunson picked up his second foul with 7:52 left in the first quarter, and Thibodeau had no choice but to replace the guard, who scored a career-high 48 points against the Cavs on March 31 — the first game Randle missed.
Brunson’s foul trouble had Hart concerned he made a poor fashion choice.
“I told him I was going to wear it at some point,” Hart said. “Then he gets into foul trouble the day I wear it, so I’m going to go burn it and never wear it again.”
The Cavs didn’t take advantage with Brunson out as New York reeled off 10 straight points and led 30-24 after one.
Brunson was back on the bench with his third foul midway through the second. Again, Cleveland failed to capitalize and the Knicks led 50-45 at half.
Mitchell landed hard on his lower back after vaulting off a courtside table and landing several rows into the stands while saving a loose ball in the second quarter.
He winced in pain while behind helped up and returning to the floor. Mitchell then thanked fans who cushioned his fall during a subsequent timeout.
“I jumped at them intentionally, but they moved,” said Mitchell, who sustained a small cut on his arm. “I don’t blame them. I probably would have done the same thing. It’s all love.”
NEW YORK STATE OF MIND
The Knicks have dominated the Cavs in the postseason, winning all three previous playoff series.
New York swept a three-game series in 1978 at the Coliseum in Richfield, won 3-1 in 1995 at Gund Arena and swept a best-of-5 series in 1996.