The Knicks came up short in game one, but it’s time to put that behind us. Game two is Wednesday night, when there will be another pumped up Madison Square Garden crowd ready to hurl obscenities at Trae Young in unison. Does New York have what it takes to win?
To answer that larger question, let’s start by breaking down some smaller questions that exist following the difficult-to-stomach loss suffered in the first matchup of this best-of-seven series against Atlanta.
Will Julius Randle bounce back?
Randle had perhaps his worst performance of the year in game one, finishing with 15 points on 6-23 shooting (26.1%), plus 12 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 turnovers. As expected, the Hawks made his life as difficult as possible; not only did they double team Randle nearly every time he got the ball, but they threw different types of doubles at him, and often used their biggest defenders so that passing lanes would be obscured.
In the second clip from this thread, the Hawks overload the right side of the court with tall defenders. Sure, Alec Burks was in the corner, but Clint Capela stayed far enough away from Randle that any pass he tried to make may have been tipped by the 7-footer.
This was a huge moment IMO. Julius is slow to make a decision as the Hawks look to double. RJ is trying to screen Burks' man for the 3, and Randle turns it over trying to get it there. Lou comes down and hits a big 3 at the end of the quarter. pic.twitter.com/Oc1gXMBFzd— Ariel (@APachecoNBA) May 24, 2021
Here’s an example of when Randle acted quick to pass out of the double, leading to a wide open baseline jumper for Alec Burks.
Great job here by Julius Randle to feel out the double team and find Alec Burks open on the baseline pic.twitter.com/YWxUKS2yj8— Mike Vorkunov (@MikeVorkunov) May 24, 2021
Randle definitely played worse than he has for most of the year, but some of that might have had to do with jitters since he was playing in his first career postseason game. Early in the MSG broadcast, Mike Breen explained how Randle doesn’t feel afraid of the moment, because in his mind, the Knicks have been playing playoff-style basketball all season.
“He’s wrong, Mike,” noted Walt Clyde Frazier.
For his part, Randle said he feels like he actually got mostly good shots, they just weren’t going in. During the regular season, there were only three or four games in which Randle shot as poorly as he did in game one. He probably won’t be as bad in game two, and even a slightly better version of Randle could be the difference between a victorious Knicks squad and one that falls down 2-0. Randle knows his responsibilities as team leader. He’s looking to bounce back.
Julius Randle: "Listen, I'm not making no excuses. I've got to be better and I will be better. I'll just leave it that." pic.twitter.com/JZtMuo7siS— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) May 24, 2021
Is Nerlens Noel okay?
The Knicks are already without Mitchell Robinson, so it wasn’t pretty when backup-turned-starting center Nerlens Noel tweaked his ankle late in game one, which resulted in Taj Gibson getting nearly 10 minutes of playing time in the fourth quarter. Before his injury, which took place with just under seven minutes remaining in the game, Noel was his usual self, which is to say he was a menacing presence down low.
Nerlens Noel with a HUGE block!! And....Randle dribbles it right out bounds. pic.twitter.com/uGoUYZdhNP— Alex Wilson (@AlexWilsonESM) May 24, 2021
His overall stat line wasn’t the most impressive (6 points, 3 boards, 2 blocks), but if the Knicks are going to win this series they’ll need a starting-caliber center. Gibson, as always, gave it his all, but he’s 35-years-old. Under no circumstances should he need to play 25 minutes a night.
According to the New York Post, if game two was tonight (Tuesday), Noel would be “highly questionable.” But since he has an extra day of rest, the presumption seems to be that Noel will at least try to play on Wednesday.
Per @IanBegley, Nerlens Noel should be good to go in Game 2:— Knicks Videos (@sny_knicks) May 24, 2021
"I spoke with somebody who has knowledge of the situation, and they said that the ankle injury is minor"
➡️ @888sportusa pic.twitter.com/UKoaI8e6FI
Ankle sprains are no joke, and no matter much we pray, it’s possible he’ll tweak it again if he’s back for game two. If that happens, perhaps Norvel Pelle will get a chance to play.
Taj Gibson said Nerlens, "Looked like his normal self," in practice.— Steve Popper (@StevePopper) May 25, 2021
Can Derrick Rose and Alec Burks keep this up?
Without those two, the Knicks would have been blown out by the Hawks. Instead, they lost a two-point heartbreaker on a last second shot by the best player on the opponent. Rose and Burks were among the main reasons the Knicks were able to remain in the game despite Randle’s inability to buy a bucket.
Rose posted 17 points on 50% shooting, plus 5 rebounds and 5 assists, while Burks totaled 27 points on 9-13 from the floor (69%). Their 44 combined points represents about 42% of New York’s total offensive output.
Burks has been rock solid all year, and he seemed to step up even more so since Randle was clearly struggling. Is he going to score 27 again? Maybe not, but he’ll get his. As for Rose, he’s been a rock for this team since the trade that brought him here, but he played almost 38 minutes in game one. With the Knicks, Rose only eclipsed 30 minutes nine times in the regular season, and he only really came near 38 minutes twice.
Relying on Rose for that many minutes is a dangerous game. His ability to act as an engine for the offense is important, but more important is that he remains healthy so the Knicks can count on him. How will Thibs ensure that Rose’s knees remain intact for however long the Knicks are in the playoffs?
What will it take for Tom Thibodeau to bench Elfrid Payton?
Thibs values experience and stability in the starting lineup, two things provided by Elfrid Payton, a seven-year veteran who started all 63 games this season. But Payton’s poor play is hamstringing the Knicks, and a short leash is clearly affecting his mental health. What’s it going to take for the coach to make a change?
The answer isn’t going to be easy to hear. Unless Payton personally requests to be removed from the lineup, he’s probably going to continue starting until the Knicks’ season officially ends. Once the offseason hits, Elf will be an unrestricted free agent, and Leon Rose will be in the market for a starting-caliber point guard.
Tom Thibodeau asked about his plans for Knicks PG Elfrid Payton(he started, played 8 min in G1). Thibs said he'd play "best players."— Mike Vorkunov (@MikeVorkunov) May 25, 2021
"Whatever we need we usually have the answer on the bench. No one is going to play great in every game...I look more at how the group functions." pic.twitter.com/zozDRcY2O1
Thibodeau basically said that they will put the best players on the floor.— Steve Popper (@StevePopper) May 24, 2021
The offseason is something to worry about later, though. Right now, the Knicks need to focus on evening the series with a win Wednesday night. Elf only received eight minutes in game one — a few to start the game and a few to start the second half — and he looked just as out of sorts as he has for much of the season. He missed all three of his shots, the only stat he compiled was a single assist, and he was a -2 on the evening.
The difficult truth, however, is that lineup changes are never quite as simple as they appear. There are arguments to be made for Payton getting benched for Rose and then distributing more minutes among Immanuel Quickley and Frank Ntilikina; when it comes to Ntilikina, maybe he’d have a better chance getting a defensive stop on the biggest possession of the game if he got more than 32 total seconds of playing time instead of being thrown onto the court ice cold and told to shut down one of the best young point guards in the NBA.
Unfortunately, it’s not our call. That’s the job of Thibs, who, as we stated at the beginning of this section, values consistency.
Will the Knicks win game two?
Why the heck not?. Randle is going to resemble himself again, and the team now knows what it’s like when MSG is literally shaking because of a raucous crowd. There was lots to be upset about in the aftermath of the series opener, but let’s look at some bright sides. IQ was sensational.
Obi Toppin was effective in his 12 minutes, including a ferocious slam. RJ Barrett only shot 6-15 from the field, but he played quite well overall and had a monstrous dunk that probably represents the best play of the entire season to date.
Game two tips off at 7:30 on Wednesday night. Now that they’ve shaken off the cobwebs, it’s time for the Knicks to take back the momentum.