When the season started I never imagined writing a playoff series preview for either the New York Knicks nor the Atlanta Hawks. I actually had the two teams missing the playoffs. And for that I owe you an apology.
Nonetheless we have this playoff matchup kicking off Sunday and I think it has the potential to be the most entertaining series in round 1.
Atlanta and New York each finished with 41-31 records, though the Knicks got the higher seed and home-court advantage because they held the tiebreaker after sweeping the season series. They are two evenly matched teams, with the same point differential and nearly equal net ratings.
This is the definition of a toss up series. It is one of the rare occasions where each team goes into the series liking their chances based on the matchups presented.
The battle of ideologies and skillsets will be a fun watch. And the pace of play after one quarter may dictate the winner of each game.
The Knicks want to slow the pace, grind it out and play 1990’s basketball with a touch of 3 point shooting.
The Hawks on the other hand are all flash and offense. You think Hawks and you think Trae Young nutmegging a defender on his way to banking in a floater. When you think Knicks, you think it’s 1995 and an elbow to the jaw is just fine.
Heading into the series, the Knicks are playing their best basketball of the season.
The Knicks have really crested the last six weeks. There was the nine-game winning streak, of course, but that was the result of a team that has married top-notch defense with deadly 3-point shooting (tied for second-highest in the league with the Nets). The shooting is even more impressive because the Knicks don’t really have a slew of guys who can get to the rim and break down a defense. They’ve done it with smart passing, off-ball movement and some Randle pull-up magic.
The Knicks have kind of become the most efficient version of themselves in that time. The defense is suffocating, the offense is riding a shooting wave and Randle is doing his thing.
As for the Hawks, they are also playing some good basketball. Once Nate McMillan took over the coaching reign from Lloyd Pierce, the Hawks went into another gear, particularly Bogdanovic.
He has turned into one of the league’s best 3-point shooters, forming a deadly shooting duo with Young.
Under Pierce, Bogdanovic was used mostly as a spot-up shooter and was coming off the bench to start the season. The offense lacked off-ball movement, and Bogdanovic’s best skill on offense — moving off the ball — wasn’t utilized as he was mostly standing in the corner. Now, they’re running more pindowns than they were, he has the ball in his hands to create for himself and others, and he’s thrived.
But let’s dive into the x factors and key matchups.
One Knicks Question: Who starts at Point Guard?
Tom Thibodeau went with Elfrid Payton all season long as the starting point guard, but I’m not sure he continues that this series. Payton was statistically the worst player in the starting 5, and only really took minutes away from the likes of Rose and Quickley.
But the Knicks need defense early on to keep Young from getting off to a hot start early on.
Maybe Frank Ntilikina will get some more minutes at the expense of Elfrid Payton.
Just because Nitlikina is the starting “PG” doesn’t mean he has to run the offense with his lack of skills to do so. The offense runs through Randle and Barrett for the most part anyway, and always in the first 6 minutes of each half. Starting Nitlikina for his tenacious defense may be the chess move Thibs makes at some point in the series.
Knicks X-Factor: Knocking down enough 3’s
It is no secret that the Knicks are challenged offensively. Outside of Randle and Rose, that third scoring option is undependable. It should be R.J Barrett but can we expect a second year player to thrive in his first playoff appearance? I think that is an unfair ask.
So to compensate for whatever jitters Barrett may have, the Knicks will need everyone to hit some there pointers, or at least the uncontested ones. The Hawks are going to let it fly at any given chance, and the Knicks can’t get caught hesitating to do the same when the situation presents itself.
They don’t have to win the 3 point battle, but they can’t lose it in a landslide either. If the Knicks are respectable from distance and the duo if Randle combine for 55 plus, the Knicks should be victorious.
Hawks X-Factor: Getting Trae Young easy buckets
It sounds silly to ay you need to get your star player, star point guard easy shots, but in a series against a grind house team, it will be vital.
The Hawks can’t have Young working relentlessly for 24 seconds each possession trying to run the offense, score and set up his teammates. That can work early in the series but the Knicks will wear him out quickly if he is asked to do all of that over a 7 games series.
Whether it is running off ball motion, early pick and rolls, or even designed isolations, the Hawks need to get Young freed up from the expected swarming Knicks defenders who will blitz him and any moment.
If Young can get 8 easy points a game, the Hawks will have a shot.
Key Matchup: Julius Randle vs John Collins/Clint Capela
Julius Randle was getting MVP votes this time last week, and for good reason. He did everything for the Knicks this season, and drastically improved every aspect of his game.
It has been the Cinderella season for both he and the Knicks, but it will only continue if he dominates as he did all regular season.
The Hawks offer two different looks for Randle to deal with. If Capela, who is one of the best defensive bigs in the league, is assigned to Randle, Randle will have to work hard for every basket. On the defensive end, he will likely have to spend quality time against the offensive threat that is John Collins.
This is one fo the rare matchups that Randle will have to work every second he is out there on both ends.
Despite the lack of star power and real chance that either of these two teams advances further than this matchup, I find this series as one real hoop fans will enjoy. Strategies and ideologies will be on full display throughout and what else can you truly ask for?
This series definitely goes the distance, and solely based off hime court and the notion that defense doesn’t go into slumps, I got the Knicks advancing in a brutally competitive 7 game series.