Five TKW writers sit down and answer questions as the Knicks and Hawks switch venues to continue their playoff series.
As the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks switch venues for Games 3 and 4 of their first-round playoff series, you can’t help but think either team can come away with a victory tonight. Both teams left something on the table. The Knicks were up by as much as seven points at the end of the third quarter in Game 1, before some veteran plays by Lou Williams brought the Hawks within two entering the fourth, where Trae Young did the rest.
Game 2 saw the Hawks with complete control in this series. Up 15 points entering the second half, the prospect of going back home with a 2-0 lead loomed. Then, Tom Thibodeau pivoted to Derrick Rose to start the third quarter, Julius Randle came alive, Reggie Bullock knocked down some threes, and the Knicks turned a 15-point deficit into a nine-point win and a little bit of momentum.
Before Game 3 tips off, I wanted to take the temperature a bit of how fellow TKW writers felt about the series shifting to Atlanta and some of the smaller storylines surrounding the Knicks. After throwing out a buoy of questions, we got TKW’s Tyler Marko, Jesse Cinquini, Sam DiGiovanni, Dylan Burd, and myself for a little roundtable, discussing how the Knicks can return home with at least one win, but ideally, to close out the series and move on to face the Philadelphia 76ers.
1. What has stood out to you in the first two games of the Knicks-Hawks series?
Tyler Marko: How wrong I was about Derrick Rose. To be fair to me, the Knicks were under .500 when Randle hadn’t truly taken off, and R.J. Barrett was shooting less than 30% from deep. I thought adding Rose would stunt Quickley’s development, which seemed like the most important thing. I love to be wrong. If he can keep this up, playing as many minutes as the team will need from him, they’ll be in every game.
BIG THREE FROM D ROSE! pic.twitter.com/TZl3CuQ7DJ
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) May 27, 2021
Jesse Cinquini: Julius Randle’s underwhelming start to this series is what stands out most, personally. In 72 total minutes thus far, Randle is averaging just 15 points and four assists per game and is shooting a combined 11-for-39 from the field or 28.2%. The Hawks have made a concerted effort to double him on nearly every touch, but considering Randle has been the recipient of constant double-teams all season long, it’s a surprise to see him so off his game.
Sam DiGiovanni: The bench mob has been dominant. Derrick Rose is still that dude. He has been invaluable in both games this series, especially in the last game. Alec Burks’ scoring was on full display in Game 1, and it’s a shame it went to waste. Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin contribute here and there with some much-needed buckets, and Taj Gibson is the strongest, toughest man alive. Rose may not have won Sixth Man of the Year, but he’s the leader for one of the best bench units in the league. Starters, take notes.
Dylan Burd: What’s stood out to me is the X’s and O’s battle, Randle’s struggles, and the old-school feel of the series. In terms of the X’s and O’s battle, the Hawks have been running the pick-and-roll to perfection. It’s almost impossible for the Knicks to defend it perfectly. Defending the Hawks’ pick-and-roll so far has relied on clogging the paint, eliminating Capela, and forcing Atlanta to bury threes. In a playoff setting, guys normally struggle to hit shots at the rate they do in the regular season. That’s exactly what happened to Atlanta in Game 2, as they went ice cold in the second half. They continue to play great defense on Trae Young as they did in the second half of Game 2. Let anyone else beat you.
Quentin Haynes: It almost has to be Derrick Rose, right? His energy has changed both games for New York. Game 1 saw him lead New York’s offense to success after a stagnant start, and starting him in the second half was key in the Knicks tying the series. I knew he would be a factor in this series, but I didn’t envision him assuming the role of New York’s best player.
2. How can the Knicks avoid another slow start for Game 3?
Marko: Besides the obvious? Ironically, they should slow things down, isolate Trae, attack, and react if they send help. Atlanta’s strength is their offense; I would expect them to come out of the gate running and gunning at home, and with our shaky starts this series, it could get ugly fast. Don’t let them play their game and make Trae work. Though that’s easier said than done with the way, the starting lineup is currently constructed.
Cinquini: If the Knicks want to avoid yet another slow start in Game 3, they must tighten up their pick-and-roll defense. TKW’s YouTube channel did a fantastic job at highlighting some of the team’s coverage lapses in Game 1, which carried over to Game 2 as well. Place the bigs, whether Taj Gibson or Nerlens Noel, have provided spotty paint protection outside of two feet—their help defense has been futile in delaying a barrage of floaters and layups from the Hawks.
In all seriousness, though, while Payton getting his ass glued to the bench would be greatly helpful, the thing New York needs to really do is get Julius Randle going early. He played like trash in the first half of Game 2. They can’t afford him to start like that, even though the bench is reliably bailing him out. Find ways to open the lane for him, set screens for him, make him a small-ball center. Just find ways for him to get his shot going so they can ride his confidence all game long.
Burd: It’s a simple as starting Derrick Rose instead of Elfrid Payton. The Knicks went up 7-3 in Game 2 and immediately allowed Atlanta to go on a 13-0 run to go up 16-7. Payton had several awful possessions. In the second half, Rose started over Payton, and the Knicks cut the 13-point halftime deficit all the way down to the point that they were winning by one at the end of the third. You can’t afford to start slow in the playoffs, and Elfrid Payton will ensure you do start slow.
Haynes: Start Derrick Rose. The Knicks need another offensive player who can create pressure on the defense to start games. R.J. Barrett has been fine in games, but not great, while Reggie Bullock was struggling before showing signs of life in the second half of Game 2. Rose can create some rim pressure and, more importantly, take some of the creative responsibilities away from Julius Randle, who, even with a solid Game 2 performance, looks a bit overwhelmed.
What do you think about the play of the rookies Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin?
Marko: I am so proud of our rookies. Absolutely fearless. Quickley has given us an entirely new offensive dimension with his range. Just the fact that he shoots those 30-footers means so much for the Knicks’ spacing, even more so when they’re falling. And Toppin, there were glimpses of this towards the end of the regular season, but it’s been a thrill to watch him feed off the Garden crowd. I’ve never felt an eruption of sound like I did after he threw it down in Game 1, makes you wonder how his rookie year may have looked if he had a capacity crowd to draw energy from all season.
Cinquini: Beginning with Toppin, his eight-point, three-rebound Game 2 performance doesn’t jump out at first glance. However, his play on both ends—highlighted by a masterful block-alley-oop sequence—was paramount to the Knicks gaining separation on the scoreboard in the fourth. As for Quickley, there’s a lot to like about his aggressiveness, even if he shot it poorly in Game 2 (2-for-9, 0-for-4 on threes). He isn’t afraid of the bright lights and the big moments, which not all players can say.
DiGiovanni: I could not be happier with the performances of the neophytes. Both of them look fearless out there. I somewhat expected that from Quickley because he’s been like that all year, but Toppin is really poppin’ right now! He’s been looking more comfortable as the season has gone on, and in this series, he looks ready for anything. He’s hustling and shooting with confidence. It has been a joy to watch him in these playoffs. Same with Quickley, who gets me off my seat with every deep triple.
Burd: Quickley and Toppin have been phenomenal. While Quickley didn’t have a great shooting game in Game 2, he still had a huge floater in the fourth quarter and was really good in Game 1. Toppin arguably had his best game as a Knick in Game 2, scoring eight points in 12 minutes. He looks like a completely different player from the beginning of the season. His confidence is sky high, and as a result, he’s aggressive. It’s great to add that to an already dominant bench.
Haynes: I couldn’t be happier to see both of the rookies performing. Quickley’s Game 1 performance was excellent, while Toppin stole the show in Game 2 with his energy and tenacity in his Randle replacement minutes. I think Tom Thibodeau deserves a bit of credit here, picking spots to deploy them, but I’ve been impressed with their ability to not only stay on the floor but be active and make positives contributions as well.
Heading to Atlanta, is there anything you think the Knicks need to improve to come away with at least one win?
Marko: Attacking the weak link on defense, be it Trae, Lou Will, or Gallo. Remarkably, the series is tied with how disjointed the offense has looked for long stretches. There are easy buckets to be had, and I would like to see R.J. and Burks go hunting more often. Even when they try to hide one of them on Bullock, set some screens off-ball and force them to be involved in the action. Keep the pace slow, make them work, and even if the shots aren’t falling or Capela’s cleaning up their messes, you’ve got to make them work.
Cinquini: The Knicks would be wise to throw more bodies at Trae Young on the perimeter. Especially down the stretch, New York should do all in their power to get the ball out of Young’s hands. There are other capable scorers on the Hawks, but none close to the level of Young.
DiGiovanni: I think they need to figure out their defense on Trae Young. The biggest problem is whoever guarding Young getting killed on screens and the Hawks playing 4-on-5 from there on out. Everyone is shrinking the floor, but no one is really deterring Young. They had success blitzing him on pick-and-rolls, but I don’t think that’s something they can do all game long unless they utilize Frank Ntilikina more. It takes a lot of energy to do, and Frank is the guy best suited for it.
Burd: Randle needs to give the Knicks more offensively. This doesn’t necessarily mean scoring (although that would be preferred, obviously). Even if he gets held to under 20 points again, if he can have a game of 8-10 assists, then it would be a tremendous help. This is possible based on how much Atlanta is selling out on him, and I think he first started to understand that in the second half of Game 2. On defense, I would like to see the Knicks blitz Young once he crosses half-court more often. They did it a few times in the second half of Game 2, and it worked well. Like I said earlier, let anyone else beat you. Also, Bullock’s defense on Young in the second half was exceptional. A bigger defender on Young may slow him down.
Haynes: The Knicks need to find a way to stop Trae Young. Young has been excellent running the pick-and-roll this series, successfully knifing through the defense and creating, whether for a teammate or himself. At this stage, I would like to see R.J. Barrett get a chance on him. Barrett is a good defender who can keep Trae in front of him and provide a physical presence. Either way, Young’s masterful pick-and-roll play has to stop, even a little bit, for the Knicks to have a chance.