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Hawks 103, Knicks 89: “Hello darkness, my old friend...”

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Rough series. Great season.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Atlanta Hawks v New York Knicks
Thanks for a wonderful season, fellas. Now take a couple weeks to recuperate and get back in the gym!
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Knicks defied the odds all year, but when it came time to save their season, they were simply spent.

Trae Young, Clint Capela and the rest of the Atlanta Hawks goon squad squashed a battered and bruised Knicks team with relative ease on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, winning by 14 and eliminating New York from the playoffs. With the loss goes the season, down the tubes like Mario and Luigi. As Vince Carter famously declared, it’s over.

Before we dig into the darkness, let’s look on the bright side. Back in November, the Westgate Sportsbook in Las Vegas said the Knicks would be among the worst teams in the league, putting their win-loss over/under at 22 ½. Instead, the Knicks finished fourth in the Eastern Conference at 41-31, and fielded the NBA’s Most Improved Player, not to mention top three candidates for both Coach of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year.

Okay, that’s enough light for one brutal loss. Hope you’ve got an oxygen tank handy, because we’re diving deep into the dark, where sunlight cannot reach.

There was no secret savior waiting in the wings for the Knicks, which entered the series undermanned and left it outgunned. In retrospect, the Hawks were obviously the better team. They were healthy and had a smorgasbord of sizable shooters. The Knicks, already lacking playmakers and floor spacers, weren’t up to the task without a transcendent performance from Julius Randle, whose only scent in the series started with a de.

Trae Young, a cold-blooded killer all series, was once again irritatingly excellent in the clincher with 36 points and 9 assists. Having long ago embraced the villain role, Young pulled out all the stops on Wednesday. In between jumpers, floaters and layups, he smiled at and shushed the MSG faithful. He only hit three of 11 threes on the night, but in the final minute of the fourth, as the crowd stood and cheered for their hometown team one last time this season, Young splashed a trey from the logo and proceeded to bow. Villain status: evil.

For the series, Young averaged 29 points and 10 assists on 44% from the field and 34% from deep. For the season, he averaged 25 and 9 on the same shooting percentages. His playoff debut came on Broadway, and it’s getting rave reviews.

It wasn’t just Young, though. Capela crushed the Knicks in the paint, patrolling like a guard dog on defense and rising for easy alley-oops on offense. He totaled 14 points, 15 rebounds and 2 blocks in Game 5, although that block total feels low. A classic big man whose presence alone changes everything on both ends below the basket, Capela served as a reminder that the Knicks could have really used a guy with Mitchell Robinson’s length and athleticism.

Hindsight says the outcome of Game 5 makes sense, but it still stings. The Knicks played the Hawks even through the first quarter thanks to 10 points and 9 rebounds from Julius Randle and 9 points on three triples from Reggie Bullock, although Atlanta missed eight of nine threes, which didn’t feel sustainable because the looks were mostly good since the Knicks were constantly out of sorts chasing Young around and leaving players wide open. Meanwhile, Randle added 4 turnovers, RJ Barrett didn’t get on the board, and Derrick Rose was 1-5 from the field.

Early in the second, Immanuel Quickley swished a deep three-pointer, Barrett followed suit for his first points of the game, and the Knicks nabbed a four-point advantage.

Even when the Knicks were up, nothing ever felt safe. At one point, the Hawks regained a two-point lead even though they were just 2-15 from deep. On the final play of the half, Young tried to take Randle one-on-one and failed to score. In another universe, that might have been a beacon of hope. But New York went into the half down 52-47, and nary a hero had emerged.

The deficit was only five, but it felt larger. In the third, the Atlanta lead ballooned like it was full of hot air, thanks mostly to a swarming defense that flummoxed the Knicks and resulted in three additional Randle turnovers. Suddenly, the Hawks had their largest lead of the game, 59-50. Then it was 62-50. The lead climbed as high as 14, and if not for four quick points from Quickley near the end of the period, the Knicks might have begun the fourth in a hole as deep as the Mariana Trench.

IQ stole the ball on the first possession of the fourth, then proceeded to lure Danilo Gallinari into an offensive foul. After a couple of baskets from Toppin and Barrett, Atlanta’s lead had been cut to nine with 9:44 to go. Within just three minutes, the deficit had jumped to 16. Then 19.

New York’s final push was shushed once and for all by the aforementioned Trae Young moon shot that preceded his bow. When the buzzer sounded, officially turning the lights out on a remarkable Knicks season, both teams graciously exchanged handshakes and hugs. All that trash talk wasn’t so personal after all.

Notes:

> D-Rose struggled with 6 points on 3-11 shooting, plus 5 assists, in about 26 minutes of action. Perhaps all the playing time caught up with him. After the game, Rose said he wants to be back, but that’s up to the front office, which “has bigger plans.” Well, well, well. Bigger plans, eh? Here’s hoping Rose is back as the backup point guard at a reasonable price.

> Barrett, who turns 21 in about two weeks, finished with 17 points, 7 boards and 5 assists. He wasn’t great in the series, but he improved as it went along. He’d like to be here for the long haul, and aspires to win championships. Amazing season from RJ. It’s been a pleasure watching him mature.

> Just three minutes into the second quarter Nerlens Noel picked up his third foul, leading some to wonder if Toppin and Randle could get significant minutes together, or, even crazier, whether Norvel Pelle might find himself receiving a playoff minute or two. Nope. Rather than try a path not yet traveled, Thibs stuck with the route he knew, giving Taj Gibson 33 minutes, almost a minute per year living for the 35-year-old. Gibson was gritty and great, by the way. That’s just a lot of minutes.

> People are frustrated with Thibs, and that’s fine. The roster was lacking, though, and the results in the regular season were astonishing. In the first round, his only real move to make was benching Payton. Which he did, and it didn’t work. And no matter how hard you stan Frank Ntilikina, he simply hasn’t proven he can be counted on. Could he have helped slow Young? Maybe, but Young easily crossed him up to win Game 1.

> Speaking of Ntilikina, is the longest tenured Knick a goner? Frank’s a free agent, and based on this season it seems likely he’ll be elsewhere next year, if someone is interested in signing him, that is. The Knicks could totally bring him back on a small deal. He’ll totally earn his way into the rotation! He just needs one more three-year chance!

> Since we’re talking contracts, what to do with Randle? He has a one-year $18.9 million option, or the Knicks could look to lock him up for something like four years and $106 million, per SNY’s Ian Begley. That’s a lot of dough, although even though he melted in the playoffs, Randle is a rock solid basketball player who’s only 26-years-old. These are tough decisions, folks, no matter how badly you might want it to be clear as day.

> The roster might look mighty different next year. The Knicks will be armed with up to $60 million in cap space this offseason, have two first-round draft picks, and too many free agents to name.

> One last round of applause for the Knicks, please. What a season. The way it ended was frustrating, but the ride was fun as hell. And as Walt Clyde Frazier said near the end of the broadcast, “I think we’re back, Mike. I don’t think it’s a fluke.”

The future may be bright, but for tonight, we mourn that the best Knicks team in eight years just got eliminated from the playoffs.

Quoth a commenter aptly named Things Will Be Better Next Year: “Hello darkness my old friend.”