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Knicks/Hawks first-round roundtable

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Takes like Taco Bell: appealing fresh out the oven, but a week from now they’ll be cold and unwanted.

Atlanta Hawks v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Everybody who’s anybody is talking Knicks/Hawks these days. Wherefore art thou P&T? Because P&T gives you the straight unvarnished dope on all things Knickerbockers, natch. The two teams begin their playoff matchup Sunday. Here are some tapas to tide you over till then.

1) True or false: the Knicks will defeat the Hawks in their series.

Joe Flynn: False. I have a reputation as the most pessimistic Knicks fan to maintain.

Kento Kato: True. Julius Randle dominated the Hawks this season and while they weren’t fully healthy for all of those games, I’m trying to speak the win it into existence.

BennyBuckets: True. The Knicks beat the Hawks all three times they played this season, including twice by double digits. Sure, one of those double-digit wins required overtime, but in that OT New York outscored Atlanta 15-5. By now, you probably know that Julius Randle averaged 37 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists against the Hawks in the regular season. Did you know RJ Barrett posted 21 points, 7 boards and 4 assists against Atlanta? And yeah, there’s the argument that the Hawks weren’t always totally healthy in the regular season (Danilo Gallinari missed two of the Knicks games, for instance). But guess what? No one is ever totally healthy, especially in the playoffs. These Knicks have the knack. And homecourt advantage.

Bootum: I’m going to say “true” out of principle, but I don’t feel great about it. We killed the Hawks all year, and have even had their number with F*zdale at the helm, but largely against a team that was shorthanded, either in terms of players or their head coach still being Lloyd Pierce (though the Knicks have also improved exponentially throughout the year as well). The closest thing we got to the full-strength Hawks was in their last matchup, but even then Trae left the game early and De’Andre Hunter was out. The Knicks ended up winning by 10, but that’s not the greatest margin for a game in which practically everyone played well offensively. Still, the Knicks have over-performed all season, and it’s hard to bet against Thibs against Nate McMillan, who hasn’t won a playoff series since the Sonics were still a team.

Miranda: I dunno. That’s why I’m watching, silly.

2) Which Knick’s role is most likely to expand in this series?

Joe: Nobody’s role will expand. I suppose if Obi Toppin struggles, Thibs could play Julius Randle all 48 minutes — otherwise, Thibs got this far not making big changes to his rotations, and he sure as hell won’t start now.

Kento: Frank Ntilikina has been rumored to be getting some extra looks for this upcoming series solely because of his ability to defend. His offense is pretty much even with Elfrid Payton, and his size and length will be needed to disrupt Trae Young as much as possible. Plus, while Frank isn’t a scorer, his ability to knock down 3s at a higher rate than Payton allows him to play alongside Derrick Rose as well. There is also a possibility that Taj Gibson gets more minutes than usual as well to help Noel with trying to keep Clint Capela off the boards.

BennyBuckets: Ntilikina. His role might only expand from “probably isn’t going to play a single minute” to “oh cool, Tom Thibodeau is trying Frank on Trae Young again for the second straight game!” But it sounds like Thibs understands that Ntilikina could be helpful on defense. And lest we forget, Frank shot 48% from three this year (on 48 total attempts, but whatever).

Bootum: As others have pointed out, it could be Frank, but I’m a little doubtful of that and think the more likely changes are just choking up on the rotation—I’d be shocked if Thibs plays Obi more than 5 minutes per game. I think the most likely guy is Taj Gibson, who’s obviously a Thibs guy, but has also really amped-up his play of late too. Nerlens has been great, but can get overwhelmed by big centers like Capela at times, while Taj has been a pretty steady presence throughout Thibs’ head coaching tenure, even shutting down guys like Nikola Jokić in key elimination moments.

Miranda: Rose. The Knicks are going into a series against a team whose best player is their point guard, a position where the Knicks start their worst player and where the backups include a rookie (Immanuel Quickley) and a score-first shooting guard forced to run point on a team with few credible options (Alec Burks). Rose is an experienced point guard, he’s not a rookie and — and this is putting it kindly — he doesn’t consistently bring the team down with his play. He’s New York’s second-most efficient creator after Randle. Bet he plays over 30 minutes a night.

3) Which Knick’s role is most likely to shrink?

Joe: I’ll go with Immanuel Quickley. He’s a rook, after all. Plus, he struggled a bit in the past few games coming back from that ankle injury. It’s not fair, but I could see him getting the short leash or maybe getting skipped in the second half altogether.

Kento: I think the safe bet is Quickley, since he is a rookie who isn’t necessarily peaking and coming off of an ankle injury. But because I am an Immanuel Quickley stan, I am going to hope that doesn’t happen and go with Elfrid Payton, which wouldn’t be a bad decision given the fact that he gets off to slow starts, barely plays in the second half, and doesn’t really stop Trae Young.

BennyBuckets: The answer might very well be IQ, but in addition to their stellar defense — which was fourth-best in the NBA this season — the Knicks are going to need offensive firepower if they’re going to outfly the Hawks. Toppin improved as the season wore on, but his minutes have generally stayed around 11 minutes per game this year. If he’s ineffective at first, those minutes could drop even lower.

Bootum: As I said earlier, Toppin. He’s been better of late, but still in small doses for a reason. Thibs has remained hesitant to let him loose, playing him as few as three minutes in a San Antonio game after just one blown rotation. If Thibs is restricting him like that in the regular season, I would not be surprised to see him yanked for halves at a time if he looks overwhelmed by Atlanta’s bigs or Trae in the pick-and-roll.

Miranda: Everyone’s given solid, reasonable answers, so here’s a longshot: RJ Barrett. Thibodeau had no qualms coming after the second-year stud for miscues during the season. If the sophomore struggles, particularly on the defensive end, don’t be shocked seeing vets like Rose, Burks or Reggie Bullock getting some of RJ’s minutes.

4) What’s your biggest concern heading into the series?

Joe: I have two concerns. The first, naturally, is Payton. I remember Trae kicking his ass last season when Elf was supposedly good. My second concern is their crunch-time offense, which has become far too reliant on Julius Randle iso-ball in recent weeks. With the exception of the Lakers loss, it didn’t really hurt them, but that shit won’t fly in close playoff games.

Kento: While I have the Knicks winning this series, I have two major concerns. Clint Capela has averaged 20 rebounds per game against the Knicks this season, and while Nerlens Noel is a great rim protector, he just isn’t big or strong enough to consistently grab rebounds over Capela. The other concern has been one others have voiced in the past: the Knicks’ predictable over-reliance on Randle to create for himself and others down the stretch. Having Burks and Rose healthy will help a lot, but even when the Knicks are playing great their offense can get stagnant and messy.

BennyBuckets: The Hawks are clearly going to focus on stopping Julius Randle, who should expect double teams aplenty. The concern isn’t Randle, but others who will have to step up, especially RJ but also Bullock and Quickley. Rose should be great and Burks will be fine, but can the Knicks generate enough offense if Randle is being attacked by Atlanta defenders every time he crosses halfcourt?

Bootum: One of my biggest concerns is Payton. No team can afford to punt minutes, and especially not the Knicks against a team that arguably has more talent. Even if he’s playing just five minutes, that’s a blown chance at momentum to start a half, and likely five minutes the Knicks will lose when they need every chance they can get in what will likely be close, hard-fought games. Beyond that, it’s what I just pointed out in talent, which normally wins out in the playoffs, especially in crunchtime scenarios.

While we’ve seen plenty of Randle’s heroics, we’ve also seen some of his shortcomings in the clutch, which is really just him not being good enough to entirely carry a team. Rose should help, but he normally fades out a bit from fatigue by the end of games. We’ll have to see a continuation of Clutch RJ like we did in Atlanta, and saw many more glimpses of at the end of the season (when they give him the ball). Quickley and Burks have also absolutely carried in these situations at times too, but between Young, Bogdanović, John Collins, Kevin Hunter, even Gallinari and Lou Williams, they have a lot of proven offensive options on that end. The Knicks will just have to be sure to be consistent and not over-reliant on hero-ball.

Miranda: The next time this team draws up an actual end-of-game play will be their first since...I don’t even know. I have absolutely zero faith in the Knicks’ ability to come up with anything more than “Hey. Julius. Score, huh?”

5) If the Knicks lose, their season is ______________ .

Joe: ...still perhaps the best in 20 years. The 2012-13 team won a playoff series, but that was a weirdly anticlimactic affair against the cooked Celtics team to whom the Knicks nearly blew the lead in the end. The 2020-21 team brought the fun back to MSG at a time when we all desperately needed some fun in our lives. They will be remembered fondly.

Kento: bittersweet. Bitter only because this team has shown so much heart and dedication and seeing them lose in the first round and having to see the players go through that would hurt to see. But regardless of what happens this postseason, this season must be regarded as a success. They have overperformed every pre-season prediction and ranking by miles and have made New York both fun to root for and a place that future stars may actually seriously consider. They have set a culture, have the right people in place and have improved, while giving their young stars experience — all without mortgaging their future.

BennyBuckets: A smashing success. Facebook recently rolled out a reminder that, eight years ago, after the Knicks were eliminated in the second round by Paul George, Roy Hibbert and the Indiana Pacers, 23-year-old BennyBuckets posted this as this status:

On a positive note: I now remember that horrible feeling that comes when you expect the Knicks to win and then they lose in heartbreaking fashion. It’s been over a decade since I got to feel that.

Getting to the playoffs and having a chance to compete is what it’s all about. With Randle, RJ and Thibs, this doesn’t feel like a one-year blip.

Bootum: So good I hardly want to dignify this question with a response. They could have lost their last 15 games and it’d still be an unprecedentedly successful season. When Knicks fans are optimistic, the default is “We could make the eight seed,” or more aptly this season, “We could make the play-in.” I truly did not think them being favored going into a play-in was possible—even if the Knicks lose the series, they won.

Miranda: Fin.