“Hustle and Hart”: Knicks on brink of first playoff series win in a decade

From Villanova to New York, Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart have developed a winning formula “hustle and Hart,” no pun intended.

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.

On the offensive side of things, Jalen Brunson was better than Donovan Mitchell.

On the defensive end, Hart had Mitchell in handcuffs for 40 minutes.

Donovan Mitchell simply wasn’t the star the Cavs acquired him to be in these hostile situations.

It might be a simplistic view of Sunday’s pivotal Game 4, but it was also the main reason the Knicks left MSG with a 3-1 series lead and full control of the first round.

The combination of Hart’s defense and Brunson’s efficient offense, has the New York Knicks in full control of this round one series.

The Knicks now have three chances to win their first playoff series victory in a decade, beginning Wednesday in Cleveland.

“Don’t think about closing it out at all,” Brunson reasoned. “Just think of it like we’re going into a hostile environment. They’re going to play desperate, and we just have to be able to bring it. We have to focus on one possession, one quarter at a time, and keep building off that. Just keep fighting. We’ll go from there.”

The real surprise of these past two Knicks wins has to be R.J. Barrett.

Barrett was only 6 for 25 in the two games in Cleveland but has been outstanding back at home.

After his breakout Game 3, Barrett added 26 points — including 10 in the final 10 minutes — drawing frequent Garden chants in Game 4. With Randle seated at end of the bench for the entire fourth quarter, the Knicks also benefited from clutch moments by Obi Toppin, who grabbed five offensive rebounds.

The Cavaliers were again annihilated on the glass, a theme of the series.

Each game the Knicks have won, they simply out hustled and outmuscled this young Cavs team. From Mitchell Robinson and Randle bruising down low to wings and guards on the perimeter, the Knicks have made it a focus to be physical.

This is not a new tactic lesser talented teams employ, its been done in every decade of the sport. Hell it’s in the Knicks DNA. The difference this series is the talent gap isn’t wide enough in favor for the Cavs to simply overcome the Knicks combination of physicality and ability.

Or at least its not when Mitchell is shooting 5-18 scoring just 11 points.

Tom Thibodeau catches a lot of heat from players, media and fans for his over usage of players, lack of imagination on offense and unwillingness to trust young players.

But the man is a defensive wizard in a sport that has become offensive throughout his career. It is a struggle at times but he has this Knicks team locked in defensively. Holding any star player to 11 points is damn near unheard of these days. Throw in the fact that the Knicks don’t feature an all time defensive player on their roster and it becomes that much more impressive.

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.

While the Knicks can’t afford to look ahead beyond the Cavs series, we certainly can.

Heading into the playoffs everyone outside of delusional Knicks fans knew the absolute peak for either team coming out of this series would be just that, a round 1 win. That was because we assumed the prize for a round one win would be facing Giannis and the Milwaukee Bucks.

But with Giannis sidelined and the Heat up 2-1, maybe the Knicks can dream a bit bigger.

The Heat while having experience and being excellently coached, are a very flawed team. Hence the reason they are an 8th seed. It would in no way be an easy series for the Knicks but you take your chances facing anyone but Giannis.

So New York go crazy on 7th avenue for now, it creates such great meme content. But everyone beware, this might not be the last tine MSG lets out 15,000 lunatics ecstatic after a Knicks playoff win in 2023.

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