June 3, 2023

In the end, when the entire postseason puzzle settles into place, the drought that matters dates back to 1973. Any mini droughts knocked off — as the Knicks did Wednesday night at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland — mark progress.

But erasing the drought?

That’s a type of bliss not felt by a Knicks player since the days of Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and Bill Bradley.

In the end, if all goes perfectly for the Knicks, the embraces and high-fives and smiles following their convincing 106-95 victory over the Cavaliers in Game 5 will be just a footnote to the city-wide celebrations, to the parade, to anything that happens when a New York City basketball team reaches the sport’s pinnacle.

There are intermediate steps to reach that point, and the Knicks took a not-so-small one Wednesday night by winning their first postseason series since 2013 and second since Patrick Ewing’s exit following the 1999-2000 season. They made a difficult first-round opponent seem simple.

Jalen Brunson puts up a shot in the Knicks' Game 5 win over the Cavaliers.
With Jalen Brunson at the controls, the Knicks clinched their first series win since 2013.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

They even got some help from the Heat, who rallied to eliminate the top-seeded Bucks in overtime and set up a juicy second-round series that reprises the rivals’ turn-of-the-century postseason grudge matches.

Game 1 will be Sunday afternoon at an unglued Madison Square Garden.

The Knicks aren’t just the streaky No. 5 seed anymore. They will be the higher seed — and the favorite — in the conference semifinals.

If there’s a downside to clinching in Game 5 — and, really, there isn’t one — it’s that they couldn’t clinch at the Garden, something that hasn’t happened since June 11, 1999.

Winning on Wednesday was ideal.

Winning on Friday, at a packed Garden, would’ve been more romantic.

Knicks fans celebrate the Game 5 win
The Knicks fans in Cleveland were overjoyed, and a packed house at MSG will greet the team for Game 1 of the second round this weekend.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

But if there’s an upside to clinching in Game 5 — and, really, there are many — it revolves around time.

Julius Randle re-injured his sprained left ankle late in the first half and missed the final 25 minutes. He’ll need time to rest. Quentin Grimes missed his second consecutive game due to a shoulder injury. He needs time to recover, too.

In their absences, Josh Hart started and played 47 invaluable minutes.

Immanuel Quickley broke out of a shooting slump with 19 points.

Obi Toppin replaced Randle in the second half and finished with 12 points.

Mitchell Robinson might try to claim there’s no such thing as “Playoff Mitch,” but then he went out and dominated the Cavaliers with 13 points and 18 rebounds.

RJ Barrett was dynamite again.

Jalen Brunson was the best player on the floor.

Mitchell Robinson blocks Darius Garland's shot during the Knicks' Game 5 win over the Cavaliers.
Mitchell Robinson played perhaps the game of his life in the Knicks’ wire-to-wire win.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

But once the exhilaration wears off, the Knicks also have a worry to deal with: Randle’s ankle.

It was supposed to be a rear-view worry for the Knicks, a sprain they left behind in the regular season when their lone All-Star returned from the injury in time for Game 1. He struggled in Games 3 and 4, yes, but at least he played. At least the Knicks’ lineup was whole.

But then Caris LeVert rose for a mid-range jumper with 1:20 left in the second quarter Wednesday, Randle leaped to contest it and came down awkwardly.

A strange sequence of events followed. He tried to get up, but couldn’t. Two trainers stood at his side to help him walk, but Randle shook them off and embarked on a quick limp toward the bench.

Then, just when it seemed he would — somehow — try to re-enter the game, Randle got up and went to the locker room. He was in street clothes by the fourth quarter.

Julius Randle #30 of the New York Knicks on the court during a time out in the fourth quarter. The New York Knicks defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers 106-95 in game 5 of round 1 to advance to the second round of the NBA Playoffs.
Julius Randle finished Game 5 in street clothes, and now will get a few days to heal before the Knicks begin Round 2 against the Heat.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

So on a night where the Knicks celebrated the end of a drought, with the chance to chase away even more ghosts, there was that worry about Randle’s ankle. Again.

It’s a more pressing concern than Grimes’ shoulder, because when Randle plays at his All-Star level, as he did in the first half of Game 5 with six assists and sequences of spirit-lifting bullyball, the Knicks are a different team.

But the Knicks outplayed the Cavaliers without Randle and Grimes in the most important half of Cleveland’s season. That shouldn’t be buried amid the injury concern.

That should provide enough elation until the next round begins.

Today’s back page

The back cover of the New York Post on April 27, 2023
New York Post

Read more:

⚾ Mets lose fourth straight … SHERMAN: Mets need more from Kodai Senga

⚾ Yankees’ bats break through to avoid Twins sweep

🎙 ESPN fires MLB reporter Marly Rivera for calling fellow reporter ‘f–king c–t’

The Rodgers era takes flight

After six weeks of waiting and six weeks of wondering after Aaron Rodgers publicly declared his intention to quarterback the Jets in 2023, the day that Jets fans waited decades for has finally arrived.

Rodgers is Jet — that trade became official.

Super Bowl aspirations were floated at his introductory press conference, reviving the hope that a second trophy could soon reside next to the hardware from Super Bowl III.

Broadway Joe is back in the conversation. Fireman Ed got a shoutout.

From l to r: New York Jets GM Joe Douglas, team president Hymie Elhai, owner Christopher Johnson, Aaron Rodgers, owner Woody Johnson and head coach Robert Saleh stand at Rodgers introductory press conference at the New York Jets practice facility, Wednesday, April 26, 2023, in Florham Park, NY.
After weeks of keeping Jets fans wondering whether he would ever arrive, Aaron Rodgers finally showed off the jersey he’ll be wearing this fall.
Corey Sipkin for the NY Post

For once, and for the first time in years, franchise nostalgia has a relevant place in the present outside of an unrealistic dream.

So in keeping with Rodgers’ new Jets uniform number (because Joe Namath’s No. 12 will stay retired), let’s look at eight takeaways from Rodgers’ 15-minute press conference and break-out sessions with local beat reporters:

1. Is it a one-year commitment?

The Jets parted with valuable draft picks to get Rodgers, and it remains a question what should be considered a suitable return on that investment.

Twelve wins? A playoff appearance? A playoff win? A Super Bowl title?

In his press conference, Rodgers said he wants to “focus on the season” and plans to “be here for the foreseeable future,” but he later provided a small hint of how he sees his tenure.

“This isn’t a one and done in my mind,” Rodgers said. “I want to be fully committed to this season.”

The back page of early editions of the New York Post from April 27, 2023
The back page of early editions of Thursday’s New York Post
New York Post

2. What about Rodgers’ jersey number?

Rodgers has done his research.

He said he grew up watching VHS tapes of the Super Bowls, so he referenced Namath, The Guarantee and the Super Bowl III victory at his press conference. He noticed that trophy “looking a little lonely” at the Jets facility.

But while Rodgers wants to add the team’s first title since 1969, he won’t touch the number of the franchise’s most iconic signal-caller. Namath told The Post’s Steve Serby that he appreciates Rodgers’ comment, too.

“There’s some iconic names that have played here, probably none more iconic than No. 12,” Rodgers said. “And I heard what he said about un-retiring his number, but to me, 12 is Broadway Joe and I didn’t want to even go down that path — and I’m excited about going back to my college number.”

3. Rodgers kept his Green Bay FaceTime receipts

Rodgers addressed claims from the Packers that they were “really looking forward to the conversations” with him this offseason — even though those never happened. He said that his house has “limited cell service,” so people need to FaceTime him.

“There’s records in your phone about who called you, when, FaceTime, and there wasn’t any specific FaceTimes from any of those numbers that I was looking at,” Rodgers said. “… My point was if there was a change that wanted to be made, why wasn’t that told to me early in the offseason?”

Aaron Rodgers speaks at his introductory press conference at the New York Jets practice facility, Wednesday, April 26, 2023, in Florham Park, NY.
Rodgers told reporters he was focused on the season ahead, but added he didn’t view his tenure with a team as one-year proposition.
Corey Sipkin for the NY Post

When asked at his own press conference later in the day about Rodgers’ comment, Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said, “Let’s move on from that. Certainly we tried to communicate. I don’t really know what to say to that.”

4. Nathaniel Hackett a “big reason” for Jets intentions

Rodgers compiled some of his best seasons playing in Nathaniel Hackett’s offense with the Packers, and he called it a “big reason” why he ultimately decided to play for the Jets.

Hackett, who attended Rodgers’ press conference as the team’s new offensive coordinator, will make some tweaks, but it sounds as if Rodgers will enter the offseason program already understanding the crux of Gang Green’s offense.

“[Hackett] and I became really close friends for three years in Green Bay, and I love him like a brother,” Rodgers said, “and I believe in him and I’m really happy to be back working with him again.”

5. Never a doubt about the trade

There were six weeks in between Rodgers’ appearance on “The Pat McAfee Show” and his deal becoming official. There were exchanges between the Packers and Jets about trade compensation, and even a brief pause in talks as the draft — an unofficial deadline — neared.

New York Jets offensive coordinator Nathanial Hackett gives remarks at Aaron Rodgers introductory press conference at the New York Jets practice facility, Wednesday, April 26, 2023, in Florham Park, NY.
Rodgers should have little trouble picking up a Jets offense coordinated by Nathaniel Hackett, whom Rodgers worked with in Green Bay for three years.
Corey Sipkin for the NY Post

But Rodgers still believed “it was gonna happen the entire time.”

6. No conversation with Favre

Despite their similar trajectories, including an end-of-career trade to the Jets, Rodgers said that he hasn’t talked with Brett Favre about the trade.

They’ve talked in the past about Favre’s transition to New York, Rodgers said, but there are differences — specifically with the general manager and coaching staff — between their stops at MetLife Stadium.

“It is very ironic that our paths have kinda taken another step in the same direction,” Rodgers said.

Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers shares a moment with former quarterback Brett Favre during a ceremony for the late Bart Starr at halftime of the game between the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on September 15, 2019 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Rodgers said he had not talked to former teammate Brett Favre about their shared experience being traded from the Packers to the Jets.
Getty Images

7. The 40-year-old dream

At this point in his career, Rodgers considers more than just the “playing part” when making future decisions. But in the back of his mind is a goal to play into his 40s, and he revealed Wednesday that he always dreamed about starting a game at age 40.

His birthday, Dec. 2, won’t fall on a Sunday this year, but Rodgers will presumably accomplish that goal over the final month of the Jets’ regular season.

8. And about Zach Wilson …

Wilson wasn’t ducking from any quarterback competition at the end of the regular season, understanding what two benchings meant for his outlook with the team that selected him No. 2 overall in 2021.

He had no clue, though, that when he said he’d “make that dude’s life hell in practice every day,” Rodgers would be the dude.

“He’s going to make my life hell in practice,” Rodgers said Wednesday, “and I’m going to make his life heaven off the field.”

Almost on the clock

A consequence of the Rodgers trade was that the 2023 NFL Draft, which begins Thursday night in Kansas City, became even more important for the Jets.

That’s the thing about trading for a future Hall of Famer: Everything, every move, becomes magnified. The bad ones look worse. Rodgers, with his talent, makes the good ones look even better.

Northwestern Wildcats offensive lineman Peter Skoronski (77) battles with Michigan State Spartans defensive tackle Dashaun Mallory (94) and defensive end Drew Beesley (86) during a game between the Northwestern Wildcats and the Michigan State Spartans on September 3, 2021 at Ryan Field, in Evanston, IL.
Adding a well-regarded offensive line prospect such as Peter Skoronski might be a nice Jets welcome gift for Aaron Rodgers.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This draft becomes the first post-Rodgers-trade instance that general manager Joe Douglas needs to capitalize on — whether it comes via an offensive lineman, another defensive standout to provide the offense more cushion, or another approach.

Here’s what Post columnist Steve Serby projects for the top 10 and for the Jets and Giants in his final mock draft, which drops Thursday morning:

1. Panthers: QB Bryce Young, Alabama
2. Texans: OLB Will Anderson, Alabama
3. Cardinals: OT Paris Johnson, Ohio State
4. Colts: QB C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
5. Seahawks: DE Tyree Wilson, Texas Tech
6. Lions: CB Devon Witherspoon, Illinois
7. Raiders: CB Anthony Gonzalez, Oregon
8. Falcons: RB Bijan Robinson, Texas
9. Bears: DT Jalen Carter, Georgia
10. Eagles: OLB Nolan Smith, Georgia

Jets: OL Peter Skoronski, Northwestern

Giants: CB Joey Porter Jr., Penn State

The first round of the NFL Draft begins at 8 p.m. — the Panthers hold the top selection after their pre-draft deal to snatch the pick from the Bears.

More than just a 3-2 lead

New York N.Y. 04/22/23 Ryan Lindgren #55 of the New York Rangers defends against Timo Meier #96 of the New Jersey Devilsref10 as Igor Shesterkin #31 of the New York Rangers defends the net during over time as the New Jersey Devils defeat the New York Rangers 2-1 in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference First Round of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 22, 2023.
The Rangers and Devils aren’t only battling to get to the second round, but also perhaps to take over the Eastern Conference.
Paul J. Bereswill for the NY Post

The first round of the NHL playoffs hasn’t even ended, and already it appears that a shift of the Eastern Conference’s hierarchy has begun.

It all started with 9:44 gone in the third period on Monday, when the Maple Leafs trimmed the Lightning’s three-goal lead to two. That became one three minutes later. Then, it evaporated, and the Lightning dropped their third consecutive game in overtime, and they now trail Toronto 3-1 in the series.

Maybe the three consecutive Stanley Cup final runs have started to catch up with the Lightning. Maybe a ninth playoff appearance in 10 seasons does take a toll on players, especially when the unlikely repetition of doing it over and over and over again becomes a reality.

That means it’s time to reset where the Eastern Conference stands entering a pivotal Game 5 between the Rangers and Devils on Thursday.

It’s entirely possible — and wouldn’t even be surprising — if the Lightning storm back and take the final three games, given that they have Andrei Vasilevskiy and the Maple Leafs have, well, had difficulties closing out playoff series.

But, at this point, with a Bruins team tearing through a historic regular season and the Rangers and Devils with their cores intact for the foreseeable future, which team advances to the Stanley Cup final might just become the favorite to unseat the Lightning as the conference’s franchise with the most dynastic qualities.

The Lightning won’t have a first-round draft pick for the third time in four years. Steven Stamkos will be 34 next season, though he just topped 30 goals and 80 points again.

So, on paper, the Game 5 scenarios will look like this: The Rangers and Devils are knotted at 2 wins apiece. The Bruins failed to close out the Panthers on Wednesday night, though they retain a 3-2 advantage in the series.The Lightning’s season teeters on the brink of elimination.

But, really, the scopes of these games stretch far beyond this series and this postseason. Everything, finally, has started to shift.