The Eastern Conference’s fourth-seeded New York Knicks and fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks meet in the first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs. The teams have not made the playoffs since 2013 and 2017, respectively.
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How they got here
New York Knicks
The Knicks weren't even supposed to make the playoffs, let alone host a series. An injection of hard-nosed coach Tom Thibodeau breathed life into a roster once left for dead, and effort alone can win a lot of games, especially in this shortened and wonky season. New York's top-four defensive rating is evidence of that.
Do not make the mistake of underestimating their talent. Almost everyone on the roster raised his game under Thibodeau. No one more than Julius Randle, a lock for this year's Most Improved Player award. The well-traveled 26-year-old blew his career highs out of the water, averaging 24.1 points (46/41/81 shooting splits), 10.2 rebounds and six assists per game to establish himself as the most unlikely of MVP candidates.
Second-year wing R.J. Barrett made the leap on both ends of the floor you want to see from a No. 3 overall pick, and late first-rounder Immanuel Quickley walked in a Sixth Man of the Year candidate as a rookie.
An apparent season-ending injury to starting center Mitchell Robinson could not even stop New York's momentum, as veteran backup Nerlens Noel seamlessly filled a void at the rim. A handful more journeymen similarly seized opportunities, and their collective production helped convince first-year executive Leon Rose to pull the trigger on a deal for former MVP Derrick Rose that cemented the Knicks as a real threat.
The Hawks were 14-20 when they fired coach Lloyd Pierce at the end of February, 11th in the Eastern Conference and out of the playoff hunt. They replaced Pierce with the defensive-minded Nate McMillan, a perennial Coach of the Year candidate on the Indiana Pacers over the previous five years, and immediately won eight straight. Their 27-11 record to close the season under McMillan included a +4.5 net rating that ranked second to the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference since the start of March.
The turnaround was not so simple as swapping coaches. The afterglow of adding Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari in free agency wore off quickly. The Hawks were not immune to health issues that plagued most teams this season. The first of De'Andre Hunter's two seven-week injury absences began on Jan. 29, and Bogdanovic's return from his own seven-week stint on the injury list coincided with McMillan's hiring.
It took time to strike a balance. Trae Young ceded some control of the offense to Bogdanovic. Frontcourt stalwarts John Collins and Clint Capela, who combined for 32.8 points, 21.7 rebounds and three blocks per game, flexed between big and small lineups. They rode the wave of Gallinari's hot streaks. The addition of Atlanta native Lou Williams at the trade deadline gave them a ninth double-digit scorer to bring off the bench. The Hawks were rich with talent from the start, and they only got richer once it started to coalesce.
Head to head
The Knicks swept the season series, and Randle was a monster, averaging a 38-12-7 on 58/50/82 shooting splits. No player enjoyed greater success against the Hawks this season. That is absolutely an issue.
Atlanta can take solace in never showing New York its full deck. Hunter and Gallinari each missed two of the three meetings, and Bogdanovic missed one. The Hawks took the Knicks to overtime in last month's showdown without Hunter or Gallinari. Whether either helps stop New York from averaging 123.1 points per 100 possessions against Atlanta's defense is another matter, especially since Hunter is still not himself.
New York Knicks
For the most part, Thibodeau has ridden Randle, Barrett, Rose, Noel and Reggie Bullock in crunch time, but Thibodeau will ride whoever is working hardest to win on any given night. Quickley, Alec Burks and Taj Gibson have also all seen significant minutes in close games. Elfrid Payton is often the odd man out.
The Randle-Barrett-Rose-Noel-Bullock lineup has been New York's best this season, outscoring opponents by 18.3 points per 100 possessions over 275 non-garbage possessions this season, according to Cleaning the Glass. Swap Gibson in for Noel, and that number is still +15.2 points per 100 in a similar sample size.
Remarkably, Young, Bogdanovic, Capela, Collins and Kevin Huerter have only started five games together all season. The Hawks are 4-1 in those games. Those five are outscoring opponents by 23 points per 100 in a 227-possession sample size and should be mainstays of Atlanta's closing lineup. A healthy Hunter could squeeze someone out. McMillan also occasionally opts for more floor spacing from Gallinari or Tony Snell.
Because the Hawks have juggled injury absences throughout the season, they have not often had a full arsenal at their disposal to close games. They have been a .500 team over 36 games when the score is within five points in the final five minutes and worse when games get tighter. Atlanta has been outscored by 58 points in the final five minutes of 30 one-possession games, second-worst only to the Detroit Pistons.
Matchup to watch
Thibodeau is going to hunt Young's defense every chance he gets. The Hawks allowed 107.8 points per 100 possessions when Young was on the bench this season, equal to the Knicks' top-four outfit. With Young in the lineup, Atlanta's defense was 5.2 points per 100 possessions worse — the equivalent of a bottom-10 defense. In the playoffs, when opponents work switches to hammer weak defensive links over and over, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound Young's woes will be even more apparent. Pray for Young in isolation.
The question is whether Young can make the Knicks pay on the other end. Thibodeau's teams have often baited similar high-volume shooters into shooting themselves out of a game. Young's efficiency against New York's length will dictate spacing for his teammates and ultimately determine this series. The Hawks are 13-19 in games when Young fails to match his season-long average true shooting percentage (58.9%).
Knicks in seven.
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