by Tate Hutchinson
CLEVELAND, OH – After 10 years, the Knicks have finally made it out of the first round, and it seems like the stars are aligning towards an unexpectedly deep playoff run in 2023. Wire to wire, the underdog New York Knicks were in cruise control against the favored Cavaliers on Wednesday night. Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals encapsulated the brilliant team effort that has defined New York’s success this entire season.
Mitchell Robinson was key to the Knicks’ victory in their closeout game. The 25-year-old center controlled the boards with 11 offensive rebounds. With 18 total rebounds, a pair of steals and three important blocks, his defense was able to stifle a powerful Cavaliers offense led by All-Star guards Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell. When asking guard Josh Hart about his defensive impact in the MSG Network postgame interview, he noted that “[Robinson] showed this series why he’s one of the best bigs in the league. He was huge for us on the defensive end. He’s got to be the best rebounder in the league in terms of how he goes and gets the ball.”
Knicks newcomers Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson performed well throughout the series. With averages of 11/8/1 and 25/5/4, the starting guards impacted the game on both ends to defeat a guard-dominated Cleveland team. A joyous Hart, enjoying chicken wings during their joint postgame interview, said his praises of Jalen Brunson. “He’s a star player. He’s shown that…He’s continuing to prove people wrong…(turns to Brunson) Man you’re an All-Star.” Brunson, jokingly, responded “don’t touch me.” The Knicks’ team unity is clear in their attitude, focused on winning together while having fun off the court.
Julius Randle, the Knicks’ leading scorer this season, had been quiet in their first-round series, but his elite production and leadership is necessary for the Knicks to continue their playoff run. Near the end of the second quarter in Wednesday’s game, Randle re-aggravated the ankle sprain that kept him out for two weeks in March and April. His ability to play in Game 1 Sunday is at risk, contingent on its severity through further testing.
Top five in terms of net rating in the regular season, the highly productive Knicks bench unit will need to step up to fill in for Randle if he misses time. With Sixth Man of the Year runner-up Immanuel Quickley, center Isaiah Hartenstein, and athletic forward Obi Toppin, the reserve squad has been highly capable of holding it down all year.
The Knicks, however, were not the only team to punch their ticket to the second round on Wednesday. Their opponents? The eighth-seeded Miami Heat, who are fresh off a dominant 4-1 series upset of the Milwaukee Bucks, the team with the best overall record in the NBA and led by MVP finalist Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The Knicks may have caught a break by avoiding Milwaukee in the second round, but the Heat are not a run-of-the-mill eighth seed. With a roster not too different from their deep 2020 and 2022 playoff runs, and a top-tier head coach in Erik Spoelstra, they seem poised to continue their Cinderella run. Miami pulled off an incredible turnaround from their mediocre 44-38 regular season, shooting a miraculous 45% beyond the arc in their first-round series, a far cry from their bottom-five 34.4% regular season three-point shooting. The Knicks can expect to fear the dominant shotmaking of Jimmy Butler, with 56- and 40-point performances in clutch comebacks to close out the Bucks in the first round. With the Heat’s similarly productive bench, the Knicks can anticipate a tough matchup in the second round.
With a home court advantage in the second round, the Knicks have as good of a chance in years to make themselves a serious contender. Having not made a Conference Finals since Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell’s 1999-00 team, Knicks fans long for a breakthrough in a competitive Eastern Conference. Coach Tom Thibodeau made sure to highlight the importance of New York’s home fans on their success.
“We have what I feel are the best fans in the world, we have the best city in the world, the best arena in the world. I think the way this team plays, it resonates with all our fans.”-Tom Thibodeau