No Longer an Afterthought, the Knicks Are a Playoff Threat

If you picked the Knicks earlier than the season to have home-court benefit in the first spherical of the N.B.A. playoffs, you need to in all probability head straight to Las Vegas as a result of, as Bobby Bacala may word, not even Quasimodo could have predicted all this.

For the remainder of us, there’s one other alternative to not underestimate this yr’s Knicks. In the first spherical, they are going to host the Atlanta Hawks in the Knicks’ first journey to the playoffs since the 2012-13 season. The Hawks haven’t made the postseason since the 2016-17 season.

Drawing the Hawks was a best-case state of affairs for the Knicks. Thanks partially to a three-game profitable streak to shut the season, they locked down the No. Four seed in the Eastern Conference, and averted the Milwaukee Bucks, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Nets, the high tier of the convention. This is to not say the Hawks needs to be neglected. They will enter the postseason as considered one of the hottest groups in the N.B.A. after profitable seven of their final eight.

But that is a winnable collection for the Knicks, and it could be simply their second postseason collection win on this century. Both groups have been 41-31, however the Knicks had the tiebreaker, giving them the increased seed.

Here is a have a look at the two groups heading into the postseason.

Atlanta had excessive hopes after including Rajon Rondo, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari and Kris Dunn in the low season and buying and selling for Clint Capela towards the finish of final season. But a mixture of accidents and a lack of cohesion, notably on the defensive finish, saved the Hawks from being a top-tier crew. Like the Knicks, the Hawks have been inconsistent in the first half of the common season, which prompted the firing of their coach, Lloyd Pierce, in March. Rondo was later traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for Lou Williams.

Nate McMillan took over for Pierce as the interim head coach, and the Hawks completed the season 27-11 — the third best team in the N.B.A. in that span. The Knicks have been the ninth greatest crew in the league in that very same interval.

The Knicks have been additionally a good draw for the Hawks, since each groups lack playoff expertise and are evenly matched.

Jan. 4: Knicks over Hawks, 113-108 (in Atlanta)

Feb. 15: Knicks over Hawks, 123-112 (in New York)

April 21: Knicks over Hawks, 137-127 (in New York; time beyond regulation)

The Knicks had the Hawks’ number this season, beating them in all three of their matchups. There isn’t any crew that Julius Randle, the Knicks’ greatest participant, was higher in opposition to. He averaged 37.3 points in the three games — his highest common in opposition to any crew this season — together with 12.Three rebounds and 6.7 assists.

But the Hawks have been lacking key gamers in every game, similar to Gallinari and Bogdanovic, and so they have been a a lot totally different crew in the second half of the season, so it’s tough to learn an excessive amount of into these outcomes. With Pierce as coach, the Hawks were 12th offensively and 22nd defensively. Under McMillan, Atlanta was a top-10 offensive crew and morphed into an above-average defensive one.

24.1 factors/10.2 rebounds/ assists/45.6 field-goal proportion

Randle’s profession yr makes him a candidate for an All-N.B.A. crew. He led the league in minutes and missed just one game. The Hawks will certainly throw double groups at him early and infrequently. And in idea, gamers like Capela, John Collins and De’Andre Hunter ought to be capable of frustrate Randle, however Randle did simply nice throughout the common season. He is expert at discovering open shooters and evading double groups.

The subject for the Knicks has been getting Randle constant assistance on the offensive finish, where they were 22nd in the league.

25.Three factors/9.Four assists/3.9 rebounds/43.eight field-goal proportion

Young is considered one of the greatest scorers in the N.B.A. and the engine that spurs the Atlanta offense. Despite his small body, he can create house and rating at any time when he must due to his ball-handling and taking pictures abilities. He can also be an distinctive passer, considered one of two gamers in the league averaging a minimum of 9 assists per game. (Russell Westbrook is the different.) Luckily for the Knicks, their protection is designed to cease a participant who thrives in isolation in the approach Young does. RJ Barrett is a strong defender, and the Knicks had considered one of the league’s best defenses.

Dunn made his debut for the Hawks in late April after signing as a free agent in the low season. Because of a knee damage, he missed all however 4 video games. Dunn is considered one of the greatest perimeter defenders in the league, and now that he’s wholesome, he might trigger issues for RJ Barrett, Derrick Rose and the remainder of the Knicks’ guard rotation.

In January, Hunter, a second-year ahead, averaged 18.7 factors and 4.9 rebounds in 14 video games on 53.Three p.c taking pictures. For the remainder of the season, he performed solely 5 video games due to a knee damage that required surgical procedure. On Sunday, Hunter performed 24 minutes. If he had stayed wholesome all season, he may need been thought-about for an All-Star spot.

Like Randle and Barrett, Hunter made a leap this season. If he’s anyplace near what he was in January, that spells bother for the Knicks. The Hawks have been taking part in nice basketball over the final month, and including gamers nearly as good as Dunn and Hunter at this stage of the season is a luxurious most groups don’t have.

Noel and Ntilikina aren’t flashy gamers. Noel has bother catching the ball beneath the basket. Ntilikina barely will get on the ground. But Noel is considered one of the greatest rim protectors in the N.B.A., and Ntilikina is an wonderful wing defender. The Hawks wish to penetrate and create open seems or alley-oops. Having Noel at the rim might assist restrict alternatives for Young to attach with Capela and Collins, whereas Ntilikina might get extra time on the ground to maintain Young from stepping into the paint, one thing Thibodeau mentioned was a risk on Wednesday. And actually, Ntilikina ought to in all probability eat into a few of Elfrid Payton’s minutes.

Slow and doubtless low-scoring. Both groups have been close to the bottom of the league in pace, and playoff video games usually have fewer possessions as defenses lock down.

There will even be followers! It won’t be the similar ambiance the Garden had in the 1990s playoff runs, however about 13,000 followers can be allowed at Knicks’ house video games. Vaccinated followers can have their very own part, the place social distancing gained’t be required. Others who present adverse outcomes for an antigen or coronavirus check can sit in socially distanced sections.

Randle will proceed his dominance of the Hawks. The Knicks’ suboptimal offense will get assist from Atlanta’s suboptimal protection. Doubling Randle will frustrate the Hawks due to his capability to create open seems for perimeter shooters. Also, the Knicks are an elite 3-point-shooting team.

On high of all this, Knicks Coach Tom Thibodeau is a grasp at creating schemes to sluggish gamers like Young. As nice a coach as McMillan is in the common season, he has had minimal success in the playoffs. In 9 journeys to the postseason, he has coached only one team to a series win (the 2004-5 Seattle SuperSonics).

Young will set up himself as a top-level star by carving up the Knicks’ protection. A Hawks crew that’s nearly totally wholesome for the first time all season will lastly present the potential that many analysts noticed earlier than the season. The participant who unexpectedly hurts the Knicks the most can be Bogdanovic, who doubled his scoring output after the All-Star break beneath McMillan, giving Young a dynamic backcourt accomplice.

And Williams, the streaky scoring guard, will win one game nearly single-handedly for Atlanta.

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