NBA playoffs: Knicks give home crowd something to cheer about as they force Game 6 in Miami

NEW YORK — A crushing screen from Bam Adebayo sent Quentin Grimes tumbling onto the Madison Square Garden floor Wednesday night. Grimes' awkward step and a banged knee left him on his rear end, flailing in pain, right above the basketball of the Knicks’ logo at midcourt.

He was stranded far from the play, only capable of hobbling back to find his defensive assignment, the ever dangerous Jimmy Butler, who had leaked out to the left wing. And even with that squeaky wheel, Grimes stood his ground as the ball swung back Butler’s direction with 1:45 remaining in Game 5. He stalled the Heat All-Star’s drive at the foul line and somehow poked Butler’s dribble loose, a crucial stop that helped New York stave off elimination with a 112-103 victory.

“I was hurt a little bit, but that wasn’t going to stop me from doing whatever I can to get a stop and just disrupt the play,” Grimes said. “It’s the playoffs, you gotta do whatever you can to win. This is what you watch as a kid.”

The Knicks rose to the occasion all evening long, responding to a 3-1 series deficit at large, responding whenever Miami threw a haymaker in New York’s direction. The Heat sludged the Knicks’ scoring attack in the first quarter, limiting the league’s third-best offense in the regular season to just 14 points as it stared up at a 10-point deficit. That was before an 18-2 spurt from New York began the second frame.

New York Knicks' Jalen Brunson (11) drives past Miami Heat's Caleb Martin (16) during the second half of Game 5 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference playoff semifinal Wednesday, May 10, 2023, in New York. The Knicks won 112-103. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Such a momentum swing, though, only came after that opening period ended with a dud. Josh Hart, the Knicks’ trusted trade-deadline acquisition, was handed a flagrant 1 foul for closing out on a Butler 3-point attempt and eliminating his landing area. Frustration with officiating had seemed to surface on Hart and Jalen Brunson’s wrinkled brows and gaping mouths as Game 4 slipped away in Miami on Monday. And here, Hart ripped off his white headband in disbelief at what marked his third personal, stomping all the way past New York’s bench and disappearing through a black tunnel to simmer down in the bowels of MSG.

Even after the Knicks’ torrid start to the second reclaimed the lead, Brunson couldn’t hide his own exasperation at the officials midway through the quarter. He tried to bump past Kyle Lowry in the post, but the veteran denied Brunson’s fallaway and he howled it should have been deemed a foul. Brunson stewed throughout his ensuing jog back on defense and reached a boil by the time head coach Tom Thibodeau signaled for a timeout, to the point where Julius Randle bear-hugged Brunson as he neared the Knicks’ bench and the baseline official who’d drawn Brunson’s ire.

“Things weren’t going our way. We were complaining as a team,” said Brunson. “And then we decided we just gotta play through it. Gotta just go through everything, not really worry about all that stuff. We just found a way to keep sticking together and found a way to get a win.”

“You gotta scratch and claw,” said Knicks swingman R.J. Barrett.

The same night he was named to the All-NBA third team, Randle followed his 1-of-7 start from the field by connecting on his next six attempts throughout the remainder of the contest, en route to 24 points. Much of his contribution came along the Knicks’ 23-7 sprint that began the second half, blowing open a 19-point lead with 5:55 to play in the third quarter.

“We got in a hole early, no panic,” Thibodeau said.

Miami took New York by surprise, according to Brunson, when midway through the fourth quarter, the Knicks’ lead having been whittled down to 95-91, the Heat intentionally hacked Knicks center Mitchell Robinson on consecutive possessions. Miami sent the 48.4% free-throw shooter to line, with a season on the brink, after Robinson has griped about his offensive usage at various parts of this long campaign. Here was the scalding spotlight he wished for. And when Robinson calmly sank 3-of-4 attempts, an enlivened Garden crowd didn’t need to stand for his ovation as Thibodeau subbed reserve center Isaiah Hartenstein in his place. The fans had already risen to cheer his foul shots as if they’d won the game with those very heaves.

Brunson and Grimes played all 48 minutes to help New York finish this job, and the mileage certainly showed. Not with any deteriorating performance down the stretch, but as Brunson doubled over during Barrett’s late free throws, his hands on his knees, staring down at the hardwood and nothing more.

Brunson led all scorers with 38 necessary points on 12-of-22 shooting from the field to go along with 9 rebounds and 7 assists. After finishing fourth in the regular season in crunchtime scoring, Brunson connected from distance and nicked his way toward the rim to consistently quell any Miami tide. His barreling drives into the paint have become a patented performance, ripping the ball through defenders’ arms to draw contact and bumping all comers with his shoulder to carve the space needed to loft a floater through iron.

“He’s just an incredible all-round player. Great leader, greater toughness. Mental toughness, physical toughness,” Thibodeau said. “Ability to think on his feet, ability to lead, ability to connect with people, to bring the best out of people. That’s what makes him special. And it’s play after play.”

To provide that type of stability, or at least Brunson’s power to tilt the treacherous seesaw of a fourth quarter in the right direction, has raised the level of this franchise since his free agency coup almost one year ago. A challenging — to say the least — Game 6 now awaits in South Beach on Friday. But if this victory above Penn Station represents the Knicks’ final outing in front of these delirious fans, in front of the rest of the NBA ecosystem that is watching, it will go down as a sweet last bite for the Big Apple. A swift first-round series win and a strong second-round showing was all New York could have hoped for at the onset of this season. Something more, well, can only set the stage for even brighter lights in Manhattan. The Knicks have a dog as their starting point guard. And they will, rest assured, be searching for more All-Star talents capable of running among the postseason wolves.