The Knicks’ playoff drought officially ends tonight as they open up their first-round series against the Hawks at Madison Square Garden.
At long last, we here. The New York Knicks (41-31) are back in the playoffs for the first time in eight years. No one in their wildest dreams thought the Knicks would come anywhere close to playoff contention this season. Now, 15,000 fans will witness the long-awaited return of postseason basketball in Madison Square Garden.
Tonight’s 7 p.m. ET matchup is the first against Trae Young and the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks (41-31). Just like the fourth-seeded Knicks, the Hawks are breaking a playoff drought with a rebuilt, young squad. Although that drought was only three years long, this Hawks team is completely revamped.
Atlanta is one of the best offensive teams in the league, posting the eighth-best Offensive Rating this season. Young is the ringmaster for this high-flying offensive unit. His limitless range, shifty handles, dazzling playmaking, and surprisingly high free-throw attempt rate (wink, wink) make him one of the tougher guards to contain in the league. He averaged 25.3 points and 9.4 assists per game this season.
Young is surrounded on all sides with all types of weapons. John Collins, who averages 17.6 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, blends explosive jumps with a solid three-ball to make for a versatile second option. Clint Capela, the regular-season rebounding champion, provides Young a big, strong target to throw lobs to. Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Kevin Huerter, Lou Williams, and De’Andre Hunter can all be found getting buckets on the perimeter.
New York and Atlanta squared off three times in the regular season, with New York taking the victory each time, but they never ran away with any game. All of them were close contests at some point in the fourth quarter and one game went into overtime. This series may not go the distance, but it should be closely fought nonetheless.
One thing that should also be kept in mind when looking at the Knicks’ head-to-head record against the Hawks is that only one of those wins came against the Nate McMillan-coached Hawks. McMillan took over for Lloyd Pierce in February. The change was a huge reason for Atlanta finding itself in the postseason. Since McMillan took over, the Hawks are tied for the third-best record in the league. The Hawks have been better on both sides of the ball under his guidance, especially on offense.
Both teams are carried by their respective All-Star players. Randle and Young are responsible for the bulk of their team’s offensive outputs. They’ll only be going toe to toe on the stat sheet, as they probably won’t spend much time matched up with one another. Finding a way to stop the opposing star will be the most important part of their game plans for each team.
Find a Way to Stop Trae
As TKW’s Jesse Cinquini recently wrote, the Knicks were able to find success against the Hawks by slowing down Young. He found fewer open looks from deep due to New York’s aggressive defense at the top of the key. It’ll take a team effort to take Young down, but it may be led by two of the least heralded players on New York’s roster: Elfrid Payton and Frank Ntilikina.
Many of Payton’s best defensive moments have come against Young this season. His size and hand quickness should allow him to bother Young. While there’s definitely a case that he shouldn’t play much in the postseason due to his offensive deficiencies, he could provide some value as a Trae botherer.
And so could Ntilikina. Tom Thibodeau told reporters that he has put a lot of consideration into using the Frenchman in the playoffs because of his defensive abilities. He is perhaps the Knick best suited to match up against Young because of his size, wingspan, and tenacity.
Matchup to watch: Julius Randle vs. The World
No other team got cooked by Julius Randle more than the Hawks. Across three games, Randle averaged 37.3 points per game, the best mark he had against any team this season. His shooting splits of 58.1% from the field, 50.0% from deep, and 81.8% from the free throw line further prove his dominance against Atlanta.
GOOD MORNING TO JULIUS RANDLE AND ONLY JULIUS RANDLE
— The Knicks Wall – x (@TheKnicksWall) February 16, 2021
According to matchup data from NBA Stats, Collins and Capela were the Hawks that matched up with Randle the most. But neither could slow him down much. Randle shot 13-for-21 against Collins and 8-of-14 against Capela.
Hunter should provide some solid help, either as an on-ball defender or as someone in help position at the nail or near the wing. At 6-foot-8 with a seven-foot wingspan, he has the size and defensive prowess to spend time guarding Randle. However, he spent much of his lone game against the Knicks (he missed the last two due to injury) guarding R.J. Barrett, so he may have his hands full there.
The Knicks’ only inactive player at the moment is Mitchell Robinson, who is still recovering from a fractured right foot. For the Hawks, Cam Reddish is expected to miss the whole series with a right Achilles tendon injury. The second-year wing, who was one of Atlanta’s starters when healthy, has been recovering since February and got 10-to-14 days tacked onto his rehab.