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Game 1 — Hawks 107, Knicks 105: “Poop”

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So many profanities come to mind........

Atlanta Hawks v New York Knicks - Game One Photo by Seth Wenig - Pool/Getty Images

The irony of labyrinths is that they dazzle us with simplicity, the senses fed the same information over and over until one’s ability to be overwhelmed is overwhelmed and you find yourself lost somehow, somewhere familiar. The Atlanta Hawks defeated the New York Knicks 107-105 Hawks in game one of their first-round matchup in a game whose final ten seconds were a tale of two labyrinths.

ICYMI:

Trae Young took 32 shots — 23 field goals, nine free throws — and made 20. This wasn’t a Trae-channeling-Steph-Curry game. Last night he looked more like Isiah Thomas back in the day, speed and handle slicing up the defense with runners, floaters, lay-ups and pull-ups and chin-ups and whatever ups there was. Like liquid ball bearings he was. Frictionlessness.

When he lined up for the winning drive Young already had 30 points and 10 assists, dazzling the Knicks less like a blur and more like a drumbeat, syrup-smooth syncopation on a night the Knicks’ band leader, Julius Randle, struggled to find the beat. You may have recognized Frank Ntilikina getting dusted twice on the Young game-winner. A casual fan or anyone who got up to pee just before halftime might have been understandably baffled by Ntilikina’s arrival after an evening spent sitting for all but the dying heartbeats of the first half.

Two repetitions combined to design this labyrinth: Tom Thibodeau making a surprising decision and Elfrid Payton’s extended run as Ozzie Smith tumbling down the Springfield Mystery Spot.

After we all spent a fun week imagining Playoff Thibs taking a guillotine to the rotation, 11 Knicks saw playing time last night. Rookies Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley played a pretty positive plus perfectly palindromic 12 and 21 minutes. They made ‘em count.

The bench were the stars of the game and nearly New York’s saving grace. Quickley hit a couple of 3s. Derrick Rose played 38 minutes for only the third time all season and a good number were good minutes. Alec Burks scored 18 of his team-high 27 in the fourth, some sublime, all significant, at least at the time, which is the best any one of us can hope to be.

So when Thibodeau decides to thaw Ntilikina in the heat of the game’s sun, he’s confounding some people — particularly the hindsight crew; I was all in favor of Ntilikina checking Young there — but the conditions on the ground made the decision a bit easier to follow. The bench had done the job all night. Ntilikina is your best perimeter defender and has had success against Young in the past. But the tao of Thibs is to mystify even at his most mundane.

Another reason Ntilikina was out there was because the Knicks’ starting point guard, the one whose shortcomings are, we’re told, offset by his defensive ninjitsu, was pulled after four minutes in the first half and three in the second, and by “pulled” I mean “banished.” The Payton polemic is no longer a talking point or a hot take; it’s become painful to watch. It’s evident watching him play his confidence is shot. He’s not helping the team and he’s not helped by being yanked early and buried for 20 minutes. How can a player be so valuable they deserve a spot in the starting five but so disposable they don’t even last five minutes? What if Elf is a force multiplier, but like a Sith? Meaning not only does he struggle, but his struggles lead Thibs to play Rose 21 straight minutes in the first half, meaning one of the team’s most important — and oldest — players risks playing on fumes sooner and longer than his opponents.

Young’s game-winning drive was a bit wind-aided, at least in terms of who met him on the contest — Julius Randle — and who didn’t — not Mitchell Robinson, out injured; not Nerlens Noel, who left this one with what looked like a foot injury; not Taj Gibson, who blitzed Young at the logo with the hopeless pride of a dog chasing a car. That the Knicks are the four-seed in a series that will almost certainly feature Norvel Pelle at some point is a testament to the grit of their pivotmen all season and the attrition of that season.

The Knicks’ last shot was a labyrinth of Thibs bewildering us and the Knicks’ season-long inability to draw up a game-winning last-second shot. With nine-tenths of a second remaining, Burks lofts the inbounds to Randle. It’s fair to wonder at the wisdom of pinning your hopes on someone who was 6 of 23 to that point, but the logic is clear: your best chance to win is your best player; get them the ball. Curiouser was having Burks, the hottest player on the floor at that point, inbounding. With more time on the clock the inbounder is a threat to get the ball back, but 0.9 isn’t enough for such shenanigans. Why sacrifice your best performer in that spot just to get the ball in bounds? You could hear the Hawks’ defense sigh with relief.

Randle caught a high pass from Burks; he didn’t have time to come down with it and shoot, so the buzzer buzzed and the game ended and as Trae Young ran off the court shhhing the 15,000 who’d paired the f-word with his name loudly and often, we were all a little less innocent, a little more alive, which is the best any one of us can hope to be.

Notes

  • RJ Barrett stumbled early but got going in the second half. One trend worth hoping for: RJ taking advantage of mismatches with Young to create opportunities passing out of the post.
  • Also:
  • Really hope Noel is okay. He and Gibson combined can accord themselves well against Clint Capela. Taj and Pelle would be a different neighborhood.
  • Per MSG trivia: RJ is the youngest Knick ever to start a playoff game. Who was the prior youngest?
  • I miss crowd reaction shots. The building was loud, playoff loud, which was fun to hear. But I really, really love replays where you can see people reacting after. That sparks joy.
  • This does not.
  • Trivia answer: Iman Shumpert.

Quoth chiniqua: “Poop.” Yes, it stinks, but it can also be used to promote growth. The new-to-the-playoffs Knicks got their first taste and it tastes like blood and hunger. Next game is Wednesday night. Let’s get lost together then.