Early in the second half of the Knicks’ 113-96 Game 3 loss in Atlanta, Julius Randle, RJ Barrett and Reggie Bullock all had 3-pointers nearly go in before bouncing out. Sometimes the only real measurable difference between two teams is whose shots go in and whose don’t. When the Knicks won Game 2 the Hawks missed a ton of good looks. Who knows how this game might have turned out if that trio of early third near-makes had fallen? It was still anybody’s game at that point. Or was it?
Sometimes the difference between two teams is one’s best player is way better than the other’s. Player ratings can spike wildly in a relatively short amount of time. At the beginning of the bubble playoffs I ran a Twitter poll asking who was better, Jamal Murray or John Starks. It was a close vote; I think Starks narrowly won. I ran the same poll about a month later, after Murray’s bubble apotheosis, and Murray got like 90% of the vote. The answer didn’t interest me; the speed with which consensus shifted after such a short period of time did, and does.
Nine months ago if the Knicks could have traded Randle for Trae Young, Knick fans would’ve called it Lufthansa 2.0 and been thrilled with the heist. A couple months ago, a number of them would have Randle rated above Young. And yet for all the wailing and gnashing of teeth over so many things going wrong over the first four games, the simplest explanation for why Atlanta is beating New York down is that Randle looks like last year’s Randle, while Young raises his rep with every drive and dish, every 30-footer.
Randle scored seven in the first, a sign of progress even if it took nine shots to do so. He was still looking for his offense, even if it wasn’t there to be found, and it’s important to know for the future that Randle isn’t someone who hides in his shell when times are bad. Young plays like someone who’s never known down times.
That was Atlanta’s only 3 for a while; they missed 11 of their first 12 attempts from deep. Young spent much of the early going eviscerating the Knick perimeter defense and finding Clint Capela open two feet from the hoop. It’s a renowned superstar strategy: get your teammates going early so they’re feeling good the rest of the night, and get yours later. This was evident early in the second, when Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanović and Kevin Huerter all hit 3s in a minute, flipping a five-point deficit into a four-point lead.
Late in the half Young hit Randle on the head on a corner 3 and was whistled for the foul. There was no doubt he smacked Julius on the gulliver. You know you’re feeling unstoppable when you’re confirmed to have hit someone in the head and yet you still come out acting like the victim.
Young was not alone hurting the Knicks. There’s a line in the final (mostly disappointing) season of Castlevania where one character asks another if they ever told them about the time they saw 18 squirrels kill a dog. The Hawks are a furious, roiling scurry of squirrels picking the Knicks apart from every angle. Capela put up a double-double. John Collins had his best game of the series. Bogdanović and Huerter combined for seven 3s. For the first time in the series Atlanta won the rebounding battle. Basketball is a team game, and thus it’s important to remem-
All that is true, but the biggest reason the Hawks led by as many as 26 and are a win away from eliminating the Knicks is because their best player is playing like one. I’m not saying the Knicks are where they are entirely because of Randle; without him, they wouldn’t be anywhere near where they are (this is known as the John Starks defense; Starks gets endless crap for the fourth quarter of Game 7 in the 1994 Finals but far less attention for scoring double-figures in the fourths of Games 4, 5 and 6, helping New York win the first two and come a Hakeem Olajuwon fingernail away from hitting the title-winning shot).
I’m getting off-topic. Let me wrap with a simple visual of their numbers after four games.
TRAE: 27.5 pts per, 47% FG%, 11 3s, 37% 3P%, 40 assists, 11 turnovers
RANDLE: 16.8 pts, 27% FG%, 8 3s, 33% 3P%, 17 assists, 15 turnovers
- Late in the game Bullock got T’d up after running 70 feet toward Gallinari by the Atlanta bench, upset about a Gallo elbow to his back shortly beforehand. On the Hawks’ next possession Gallinari set a pick on Randle, who made sure to give him a shot. Julius was whistled for a flagrant. As he checked out the bench congratulated him. So far this is the high point all series for Bullock and Randle.
- One reason I enjoy watching games with my fiancee is because it’s so much newer to her than me, she doesn’t take certain orthodoxies for granted like I do. A question she keeps asking that I have no good answer for: why doesn’t Frank Ntilikina get any minutes against Young? My first thought is “Frank isn’t nearly the shooter Bullock is, and the Knicks need the threat of his offense.” But Bullock is shooting just 38% from the field and 29% from deep. How much of a threat is that? Frank can do that. Maybe Frank can do better.
- This Huerter flagrant on Nerlens Noel — Noel did not like it. Neither did I.
Nerlens Noel getting old school WWF ankle locked by the Hawks Kevin Huerter imagine this Man doing this at the Garden!! pic.twitter.com/BigzjygSF0— Alex Monaco (@Alex__Monaco) May 30, 2021
Remember Huerter also fouled Noel hard in Game 3.
- As Noel took the second free throw, Young stepped off the bench onto the court. Isn’t that an ejection & automatic suspension? I’m pretty sure that’s the rule. Plus it’d karmically balance the injustice of the 1997 suspensions vs. Miami. I’m only interested in hearing agreement with this take. Thank you.
- Hey! Knick defenders! STOP LETTING TRAE LET THE BALL ROLL 50 FEET BEFORE HE PICKS IT UP! ESPECIALLY LATE IN GAMES YOU’RE LOSING! THE GAME CLOCK IS RUNNING AND THE SHOT CLOCK HASN’T STARTED. YOU’RE LETTING HIM START POSSESSIONS LATER & MILK EVEN MORE TIME!
- Pete Maravich was an all-time highlight reel.
Dominique Wilkins was nicknamed The Human Highlight Film.
Young has a chance to be in that stratosphere of showmanship. Not in the same way — no one put the Dijon on dishes like Maravich, while Trae would need a trampoline and a ramp to reach the rim like Wilkins could — but between the infinite range shooting, his handle, his floater game and his vision, Young could be doing this a while.
- I am soooo done with that siren sound effect the Hawks P.A. plays after every. Single. Fucking. Basket.
- That midcourt logo, on the other hand. They could transport that to MSG and even though it’s the Hawks’ logo I’d take it. Best look in the league.
The Atlanta Hawks’ stained glass midcourt logo is undefeated pic.twitter.com/YifkB3b6pf— Alex Nuñez (@alexnunez_14) January 18, 2021
Quoth CalmKnickFan: “Totally hate this.” The two games in Atlanta were no fun at all. Next game is Wednesday back in New York, where the Knicks will try to keep their season alive. Hopefully the two days off and home cooking will have them looking like the team that got here rather than the one that’s been here.