Dust off the cobwebs and break out the record player. It’s OK to chant ‘Go New York, Go New York Go’ once again as the Knicks have finally made it back to the NBA Playoffs for the first time in eight years as the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference with a first-round matchup against the No. 5 Atlanta Hawks, which begins on Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
As one of the biggest surprises in the NBA, the Knicks have hearkened back an old-school style of basketball predicated on a blue-collar work ethic and defensive fortitude to overcome the simple fact that they don’t have the most talented or deepest roster.
Most of the credit belongs to first-year head coach Tom Thibodeau, who instilled the right kind of culture to get the Knicks back to relevance. But it’s Julius Randle who has quickly become the face of the Big Apple, revamping his career to put up All-Star numbers with 24.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 6.0 assists per game — all career-bests.
He was even better against the Hawks, averaging 37.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 6.7 assists in three games this season; all of them Knicks wins.
But the regular-season success has been thrown out the window by the Knicks with the understanding that the postseason is a completely different animal.
“You don’t want to feel too good because you always want more,” Thibodeau said earlier this week. “It’s important for us to be hungry and concentrate on exactly what’s in front of us. It’s important for everyone to put everything they have into each and every day. I think the maximum effort has to be combined with unbelievable concentration so you can get to the level you want to get to.”
When it comes to shutting down the Hawks, the conversation immediately begins with Trae Young, one of the top young, dynamic scorers in the game at just 22 years old. Young averaged 25.3 points per game this season along with a career-high 9.4 assists while exhibiting a knack to get to the free-throw line thanks to an aggressive, slashing style of play.
It provides the largest defensive challenge for the Knicks, whose two most-used point guards haven’t had an answer for Young this season.
Elfrid Payton, who has been invisible down the stretch and looked dejected in the regular-season finale against Boston, defended Young for 14:08 minutes during the regular season. Young scored 22 points with 10 assists as Atlanta scored 92 points over those 56 offensive possessions.
Derrick Rose —the savvy veteran who has helped spark the Knicks’ stellar run down the stretch — didn’t fare much better. In approximately 10 minutes matched up against Young, Rose yielded 28 points on 9-of-19 shooting.
It opens the possibility of getting Frank Ntilikina back into the rotation. The young Frenchman has stashed away on the bench for much of the season, but his defensive prowess provides a sizable upgrade over anything Payton and Rose would have to offer defensively against Young.
Yet Thibodeau doesn’t seem to be straying too far away from Payton ahead of Game 1.
“Look, I’ve said this all along — the depth of our team is one of our strengths,” Thibodeau said. “There are things that Elfrid provides for us that are a big asset to our team. His size, his defense, those are important factors. And then you look at it in totality: How does the team function? As is the case with most young players, there’s going to be ups and downs. You don’t have to shoot well to play well. Just go out there and give us what you can.
“The thing that I love about our team is, if someone’s not going good, then another guy steps in and if he’s going good, everyone’s cheering for that guy. The most important thing is the team winning. That’s where I want the focus to lie.”
Near the basket, the Knicks are also going to have their hands full with Hawks big man Clint Capela, who led the NBA with 14.3 rebounds per game this season to go with 15.2 points per night.
It will ultimately provide a massive challenge for Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson, who have filled in so admirably for the injured Mitchell Robinson. But Capela’s main focus, as is the rest of the Hawks’, will be on Randle.
“That’s kind of the perspective here,” Capela said. “We know it’s going to be hard, especially in those first four games. I’m not going to say it’s going to be perfect, but we have a pretty good idea of how to get to him.”
No. 4 Knicks vs. No. 5 Hawks 1st-Round Schedule
- Game 1 @Knicks: Sunday, May 23, 7 p.m. ET
- Game 2 @Knicks: Wednesday, May 26, 7:30 p.m.
- Game 3 @Hawks: Friday, May 28, 7 p.m.
- Game 4 @Hawks: Sunday, May 30, 1 p.m.
- Game 5 @Knicks*: Wednesday, June 2, TBD
- Game 6 @Hawks*: Friday, June 4, TBD
- Game 7 @Knicks*: Sunday, June 6, TBD
Team Rankings, 2020-21 season
Points per game
- Hawks- 113.7 (13th in NBA)
- Knicks- 107.0 (26th)
Points allowed per game
- Hawks- 111.4 (12th)
- Knicks- 104.7 (1st)
Field goal %
- Hawks- 46.8% (16th)
- Knicks- 45.6% (21st)
- Hawks- 37.3% (12th)
- Knicks- 39.2% (3rd)