For 17 minutes on Wednesday night, the New York Knicks were playing the kind of basketball that could make them a real threat this NBA season. Then, in the blink of an eye, it unraveled en route to a disastrous 112-99 loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
With seven minutes left in the second quarter, New York had sprinted to a 51-28 lead over a loaded Atlanta team. The Knicks were contesting shots, battling in the low block for rebounds, and diving all over the court for loose balls. They were turning missed baskets into easy transition points and flinging passes all over the court to set up consistent open looks.
At that point in the game, the Knicks were shooting 54% from beyond the arc, just under 50% from the field, and had only turned the ball over twice.
They were getting their usual consistent contributions from Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson but also saw RJ Barrett put up 10 points, three rebounds, and four assists, and Immanuel Quickley register four points, seven rebounds, and two assists. Quickley would go on to finish the game was an impressive 11 points and 16 rebounds.
It was a complete team effort, and they had the Hawks completely on their back foot.
And then a switch flipped.
With three minutes elapsed in the third quarter, in just ten minutes of game time, the Hawks had re-taken the lead. In fact, from that moment with 6:59 left in the second quarter until the start of the fourth quarter, the Hawks outscored the Knicks 63-24.
By the middle of the fourth quarter, the fans at Madison Square Garden had begun actively booing.
After the game, head coach Tom Thibodeau mentioned that the increase in turnovers during that span happened because the Hawks switched a zone, and the Knicks responded by trying to “lob the ball over the back line. We can’t do that.”
Julius Randle seemed to agree with his coach after the game, admitting that the Knicks “struggled with the zone a bit,” but he also pointed out that the offensive issues against the zone directly led to their inability to stop Atlanta on the other end.
“When you have live ball turnovers, it’s hard to get your defense set.”
That switch to the zone and subsequent run was, unsurprisingly, spearheaded by Trae Young and Dejounte Murray. Murray scored 15 points in the final seven minutes of the first half and was a menace on the defensive end, picking Jalen Brunson’s pockets once and ripping the ball away from Julius Randle just two plays later.
“Dejounte is great at that sort of thing,” said Randle.
Young, who had started the game 2-for-12 from the field, also found his stroke, finishing the first half hitting four of his last five shots as the Hawks cut the lead down to just 65-57. Murray would finish the game with a career-high 36 points, nine assists, four rebounds, and six steals, while Young had 17 points, seven assists, and six rebounds.
It’s the third straight game that the Knicks have allowed a 30-point scorer, and all three games have ended in a loss. It’s also a stark reminder that most of the good teams the Knicks will face this year have a go-to scorer who they can turn to in order to stop a run or jumpstart their offense. Tonight it was Murray, last time out it was Donovan Mitchell for the Cavs.
Jalen Brunson led them tonight with 20 points on 8-of-15 shooting while RJ Barrett chipped in 19 points, five assists, and four rebounds in a solid effort. But neither player was explosive enough to stop Atlanta’s momentum when they got going.
Wednesday night’s game marks New York’s first loss at home on the young season and continues a rough stretch that has seen them come up short against likely Eastern Conference playoff teams.
After starting the season 3-1, New York lost by 11 to the Bucks and 13 to the Cavaliers, both on the road, before falling to the Hawks. In each of those road games, the Knicks battled, even leading the Cavs with just over five minutes left in the game. There was no such late push against Atlanta.
In fact, Tom Thibodeau left his starters in until the final whistle of the game despite being down by as much as 17 points. Whether it was punishment for their flat effort in the second half or a desire to have them play through the inconsistency, it was clear he was trying to send his team a wake-up call.
They’ll need to heed it in a hurry because things won’t get any easier moving forward. New York’s next four games are all against playoff teams: 76ers, Celtics, Nets, and Timberwolves. If the Knicks want to prove that this team has more fight and potential than last year’s squad, they’re going to have to find a win somewhere in that stretch of games.