Knicks' Complete Guide to 1st-Round Playoff Series vs. HawksMay 20, 2021
Knicks' Complete Guide to 1st-Round Playoff Series vs. Hawks
Breathe it in, New York Knicks fans.
The wait is over. The 2021 NBA playoffs are here, and so are your 'Bockers, invited to the postseason party for the first time since 2013.
It's an accomplishment worth celebrating, to the point that it's tempting to say this team's season-long trampling of all realistic expectations now has the club playing with house money. From a macro level, that's almost certainly true.
Change to the micro lens, though, and there's now a legitimate, defensible desire for more. The Knicks didn't sneak into the playoffs, they took the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. They could do legitimate damage.
But before that happens, they'll have to get through the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks. This thorough guide has everything you need to know for New York's overdue playoff return.
Game 1: Sunday, May 23 | Hawks at Knicks, 7 p.m. ET on TNT
Game 2: Wednesday, May 26 | Hawks at Knicks, 7:30 p.m. ET on TNT
Game 3: Friday, May 28 | Knicks at Hawks, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN
Game 4: Sunday, May 30 | Knicks at Hawks, 1 p.m. ET on ABC
Game 5*: Wednesday, June 2 | Hawks at Knicks, TBD
Game 6*: Friday, June 4 | Knicks at Hawks, TBD
Game 7*: Sunday, June 6 | Hawks at Knicks, TBD
Stopping either of these offenses starts with corralling their respective stars. Both clubs will have a tough time doing that.
The point guard battle looks lopsided in Atlanta's favor. The Hawks follow the lead of Trae Young, a 2019-20 All-Star who missed this season's cut despite being the only player to average 25 points and nine assists. New York, meanwhile, counters with a revolving door-like rotation that opens with Elfrid Payton and shifts to the likes of Derrick Rose, rookie Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burks and Frank Ntilikina.
Will the Knicks look to answer Young's offense with point-guard production of their own, or do they lean into the best defensive option to make life harder on the Hawks' franchise face? Rose is the best scorer of the group, Ntilikina is the top defender and both give things back at the opposite end. The better Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau handles this rotation, the higher their chances grow to advance.
Power forward is New York's biggest advantage, thanks to Julius Randle's emergence as an All-Star and fringe MVP candidate. This season's minutes leader posted personal bests almost across the board, including 24.1 points, 6.0 assists and 41.1 percent three-point shooting.
"Obviously, the guy's having a great year, a hell of a year, making a lot of tough shots," Hawks forward John Collins told reporters. "He's obviously worked on his game a ton, so it's a matter of understanding for us what spaces and shots he shoots the ball in, and what we need to do as a team to force him into taking even tougher shots than he's taking now."
The Hawks will give Randle different looks with Collins, Danilo Gallinari, Clint Capela and perhaps even rookie Onyeka Okongwu. There isn't an obvious Randle stopper in the mix, though, and if Atlanta has to throw Capela at him, it will be pulling its interior anchor out of the middle and potentially making itself vulnerable underneath.
Because the Knicks and Hawks lean so heavily on their stars, virtually any other players on the roster could be classified as X-factors. Having said that, two in particular stand out as having quietly colossal importance in this series.
For New York, all eyes are on 2019 No. 3 pick, RJ Barrett. When the Knicks go searching for non-Randle offense, Barrett is the first place they look.
His numbers are up across the board from his freshman season with the biggest (and most critical) spikes coming in the shooting department. There, he flashed significant growth at all three levels, improving what was a rocky 40.2/32.0/61.4 slash line to a solid 44.1/40.1/74.6.
Because the Knicks are so good defensively (fourth in efficiency), they only need so much scoring to succeed. Basically, if Barrett is on, this club is awfully hard to beat. He averaged 18.8 points on 46.0/44.3/76.7 shooting and 3.4 assists in their wins against 15.9 points on 41.3/34.6/71.7 shooting and 2.5 assists in their losses.
While the Hawks have no shortage of options here—nine different players averaged double figures—we'll put the spotlight on Bogdan Bogdanovic.
Outside of the coaching change from Lloyd Pierce to Nate McMillan, there arguably wasn't a bigger factor in Atlanta's turnaround (14-20 with Pierce, 27-11 under McMillan) than Bogdanovic's emergence. After early struggles with injuries and inefficiency, he closed on a fire-breathing tear and averaged 22.0 points on 50.6/49.5/88.9 shooting during April and May.
Anyone have a coin we can flip?
We're (half) joking, but searches for separation between these squads yield no real results. Both posted identical 41-31 records. The Knicks had a plus-2.4 net rating; the Hawks finished at plus-2.2. Each roster is light on playoff experience. Both teams are coming in hot (New York won 16 of its last 20 games, and Atlanta finished on a 7-1 sprint).
But the Knicks have two things working in their favor.
For starters, their fourth-ranked defense is more elite than the Hawks' ninth-ranked offense and might be more reliable to translate. While the modern game perhaps favors offense, a hard-working defense with a great game plan remains one of the best avenues to playoff success.
Then, New York also has homecourt advantage on its side, which could be critical if this series goes the distance. Even at reduced capacity, Madison Square Garden will be absolutely rocking if the Knicks are hosting a win-or-go-fishing Game 7.
Prediction: Knicks in seven.