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Series Preview: Knicks (4) vs Hawks (5)

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Protect home court.

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

Hopefully New York has saved the giant steps for the playoffs. The Knicks exceeded expectations all year but still have massive room for growth on all sides. That’ll start with the crowds at Madison Square taking an exaggerated lope from 2,000 fans late in the season to a sold out and fanatical 15,000 for the playoffs! That leaves it about 6,000 under pre-pandy capacity.

Stand back and bear witness to a jolt for the bloodstream; hopefully not an electrocution level event. The Warriors had half that amount in their playin elimination. The Knicks were 25-11 at home this year, finishing very strong, 9-1 in their last ten home games. As the crowds increased so did the degree of difficulty to beat them. Against Atlanta there were no mistakes allowed all year, as New York went 3-0. Including one death defying comeback and overtime win. Now the crowd moves in, and results better not vary.

Over their three contests Julius Randle averaged 37.3 points, 12.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists on 58/50/81 shooting. What’s good for New York’s offense by and large has been getting Randle activated as a passer and then letting his scoring flow into the mix. However, if you can just bring the absolute pain to these birds? Cast that stone, babe.

Not to be written off at all, the Hawks matched New York’s record (41-31) despite having all types of injury woes this season as well as a coaching change mid-stream. After Lloyd Pierce was relieved, Nate McMillan reluctantly took the reins. Immediately the Hawks were more organized and in sync and now Atlanta seems very interested in making a long term commitment to McMillan, just not until the season is over. Their newfound sense of special purpose nearly nipped the Knicks in their last match in April. The Hawks were up by 11 and then Trae Young blew out a tire on a drive near the end of the third. His absence gave New York’s defense enough juice to drag them back down.

In their other two matchups, the Hawks may blame Pierce’s presence or injury woes. The fact of the matter is they had no answer for Julius Randle. He was the best player in the season series. As the year wore on, Julius became more and more aware of his powers. He is unquestionably the best player in this series. Atlanta arguably has the next two with Trae Young and Clint Capela.

Rotations & Matchups

The Knicks hardly need to adjust their minutes loads, although you know full well Elfrid Payton needs to be released so he can catch on with Louisiana United. Luca Vildoza is here, stop wasting everyone’s time. That mouffette don’t taste right.

Derrick Rose will get the lion’s share of the minutes but the Knicks will continue to lose the Eflrid battles until he is either benched or pitted against a scrub that he takes seriously. Brandon Goodwin would chop his ass up, thankfully for the Knicks, Goodwin had a respiratory condition that needed to be attended. Hopefully all is well for him.

However it shakes out, the minutes will largely stay the same for the top dogs. That could cut two ways for Atlanta with key cogs getting some extra burn, they could become hotter to the touch, or you might find them burning out in crunch time.

Derrick Rose v Trae Young

Reggie Bullock v Bogdan Bogdanovic

RJ Barrett v De’Andre Hunter

Julius Randle v John Collins

Nerlens Noel v Clint Capela

Both teams are doing pretty well on the injury front all told. The Knicks of course are still missing an ideal Capela-repellant with Mitchell Robinson highly unlikely to return until next seaon. The Hawks probably won’t get Cam Reddish back for at least another two weeks. The rest of the main parts of the rotation will probably shake out like so...

Alec Burks v Kevin Huerter

Immanuel Quickley v Lou Williams

Taj Gibson v Danilo Gallinari

And if there were a wild card to play...

Frank Ntilikina v Solomon Hill

The Knicks starting point guard all season will probably play but should not. I don’t need to lay out shit. Elfpologists need to finally, at long last, once and for all, explain it to me. What does this fool do to deserve minutes. You cannot say “defense”. What on defense does he fucking do? You cannot pass off his minutes because it’s not about who starts but who finishes. All the minutes count down to the second. All the possessions count to the rotation, to the close out, to the communication and everywhere in between. Speaking of things I don’t respect: Tony Snell had a .515/.569/1.000 shooting season.

Keys & Predictions

The only players that worry me in this series are Solomon Hill, Clint Capela and Elfrid Payton. In their last meeting, Solomon Hill made the game so ragged that eight or ten people got hurt and an additional twelve had serious life-scares. If Hill plays, someone is getting raked in the eyes, another poor fool is getting a twisted knee, and everyone is getting some chunky elbows.

They say don’t beat a dead horse, but it sucks because a lot of you’s are asking me to ride with one. Don’t ask me to sit on the dead horse. I don’t wanna.

Payton shot under 36% from the floor in their games with a 90 offensive rating, a 114 DRtg and a 30.2% usage. Then there’s Capela who averaged 17.3 points and 17.3 rebounds against the Knicks all told (12 & 12 in game against Robinson). He just offers too much length, heft and bounce for Nerlens Noel and he has that plus the foot speed on Taj Gibson.

Moving right along, the defense needs to flip Trae Young on his head. Blunt force deny catches. And when he has the orange, feel for Trae feeling for the contact. This obnoxious flittering moth averaged 11.3 free throws per game against New York in 2020-21. Cleanly up from his 8.7 per game season average. It won’t be easy but once he snakes, the bump back is the only moment where the defender has a chance to step around to get back in front or to give a decent contest. If you can’t slide your feet around to get back in front...

Having Young out there, even if he’s feeling it, is a good thing for the Knicks, because it’s the playoffs. That means it has come time to headhunt Trae Young. Invert your ball screen and whoever Young is hiding on should set an indelible pick, force the switch and bust out the space to get Randle isolated on Young. From there it’s just decision making and execution. Hunt that motherfucker.

This brings me to one of the sort of oft overlooked areas for improvement we’ll need to see from Randle. That is as a vocal leader. Certainly the guy can play, extraordinarily so.

He goes about in a workmanlike fashion, never really flexing or hollering, but quietly commanding respect, leading by example. The next big step forward for Julius will be as a communicator that can be as convincing as his cross court lasers, step back bombs or speedy rim attacks are punishing. If someone isn’t giving you what you need to get the win, it will ultimately be on Julius to demand they step the fuck up.

Not to be lost in all this, Randle will probably see a bunch of minutes being guarded by some very capable defenders, De’Andre Hunter and Clint Capela. The Raptors and Suns spearheaded some defenses that feature a big strong wing on Julius and whoever had Elfrid Payton can just skip around and help freely off him, even if Elf catches a skip, there’s nothing to worry about. Payton’ll just miss at the rim. Still the Knicks found ways to overcome.

Schedule

Goes a little something like this...

  • Sunday May 23, 7:00 @ New York
  • Wednesday May 26, 7:30 @ New York
  • Friday May 28, 7:00 @ Atlanta
  • Sunday May 30, 1:00 @ Atlanta
  • If necessary: 6/2 @ New York, 6/4 @ Atlanta, 6/6 @ New York

I anticipate a short and vindictive series. The Hawks win game one, Elf gets benched, Knicks sweep from there. A gentleman’s retort.