Knicks star Jalen Brunson sustains ‘knee contusion’ vs. Cavaliers, Tom Thibodeau says

CLEVELAND — The New York Knicks went home Sunday night feeling good about themselves, and lucky because of the prognosis of star guard Jalen Brunson.

The evening could have skewed in a different, and far more depressing, direction.

The Knicks beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 107-98 despite losing Brunson to a left knee injury that certainly looked worse than the team now says it is. Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau called it a “knee contusion” after the game and said X-rays taken at the Cleveland arena were negative.

“Anytime someone goes down like that, you have concern,” Thibodeau said. “But then he felt a little better. He had the X-rays. He was examined by the doctors and so that news is good.”

There was a time not long before when the vibes were not so positive.

Immediately after hobbling off the court in Cleveland, Brunson urged doctors not to rule him out for the game, even though he could not walk under his own power. A team trainer and Precious Achiuwa assisted the All-Star as he limped by the bench and into the tunnel.

The point guard went back to the locker room to test out how much pressure he could place on his left leg, if he could jump. The Knicks initially announced Brunson was questionable to return. Once they realized the pain was too severe for him to compete, they announced he was out.

New York’s players, borderline jubilant in the visitor’s locker room postgame after what was arguably their gutsiest win of the season, were also told Brunson’s injury does not appear to be serious.

“I asked him if he was okay, and he said he’ll be fine,” Donte DiVincenzo said. “And that’s everything to me. … I don’t worry about Jalen. He’s one of the toughest guys in the league.”

A timetable for Brunson’s injury is still unclear. The Knicks next play Tuesday at home against the Atlanta Hawks. Two consecutive off days follow before they host the Orlando Magic.

When asked if it was possible that Brunson could play in the Atlanta game, Thibodeau shrugged, as if to say it was too early to tell.

“I guess,” he surmised. “It’s a knee contusion and everything was negative, so we’ll see where he is tomorrow.”

On the Knicks’ first possession Sunday night, Brunson dribbled from the left wing toward the foul line and hoisted a jump shot, kicking both legs out to the side awkwardly while he was on the way up. Brunson was clutching his knee even before he landed, and there was no apparent contact by Cavs defender Isaac Okoro to signal an injury. Brunson hopped a few times before falling to the court, and was gone for good with 11:13 left in the opening quarter.

One possible cause of the injury occurred only seconds before Brunson went down, when he shuffled around a screen from his teammate, Isaiah Hartenstein, and seemed to bang knees accidentally with the center. But Brunson finished curling around the screen, caught the ball and made his move before clutching his knee in midair.

When prompted about it after the game, Hartenstein wasn’t sure if he knocked knees with Brunson or not.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I saw him on the video keep running. I didn’t feel much.”

Because of the injury, Brunson did not speak with reporters following the game.

Brunson, 27, an All-Star for the first time this season, is averaging 27.7 points and 6.7 assists — both career highs. Miles McBride entered the game for Brunson, 47 seconds in, and never subbed back out. He finished with 16 points and five assists. DiVincenzo led the depleted Knicks with 28 points and six 3-pointers, while Josh Hart produced a triple double with 13 points, 19 rebounds and 10 assists. The Knicks (36-25) are alone in fourth in the East.

This rematch of last year’s first-round playoff series between the Cavs and Knicks had already lost some serious luster, with New York missing Julius RandleOG Anunoby and Mitchell Robinson — who are rehabbing major injuries — while Cleveland was without Donovan Mitchell and Caris LeVert because of minor injuries.

Brunson’s absence meant four Knicks starters were on the sidelines for a match with one of the best, and hottest, teams in the league. Of course, New York is used to this. Injuries have plagued the Knicks all season.

Hartenstein has bopped in and out of the lineup with Achilles tendinopathy. Bojan Bogdanović missed a game a couple of weeks ago with a calf injury. DiVincenzo sat out on the same evening because of a hamstring. Earlier this week, Brunson couldn’t dress for a loss to the New Orleans Pelicans because of neck spasms.

“It’s been really the story of the season,” Thibodeau said. “We’ve been fighting shorthanded since December, so just keep fighting. That’s all we can do.”

Randle, an All-Star, has been out since Jan. 29 with a dislocated right shoulder. He and Robinson (out since Dec. 11 — ankle surgery) both made the trip to Cleveland with the Knicks, and Randle worked out on the court Sunday morning and again before the game.

“He’s making really good progress, so we’re hopeful that it’ll be soon,” Thibodeau said of Randle. “You wanna make sure that medically the doctors feel good about it; he feels good about it. And then once that happens — and he’s doing just about everything. He’s taken some light contact but nothing with a player yet. So that’ll be the next step.”

The Cavs, who fell to 3-4 after the All-Star break and slipped out of second place with the loss, received 21 points off the bench from Sam MerrillDarius Garland finished with 19 points and Jarrett Allen chipped in 18 points. They lost the season series to New York, 2-1, a disappointing result for a franchise determined to show it had evolved after a gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Knicks.

“I think we let our guard down,” Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “We prepared for a matchup one way, and I think without him (Brunson) we thought that it was going to be a little bit easier and let our guard down. They had different guys contribute and make plays, and you give NBA players with talent an opportunity late, they’re going to bite you in the ass.”

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(Photo: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)

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