The Knicks capped their dream season Sunday night with a win that secured them a well-earned reward for the postseason: home-court advantage against their least threatening option.
Though formidable, the Atlanta Hawks do not offer the daunting challenge that the Milwaukee Bucks or Miami Heat would to New York.
Still, the Knicks will have their hands full if they want to advance past the first round. Trae Young and company were one of the league’s best second-half teams, and are sure to try and make an impression in their first playoff appearance of his era.
Regular season recap
The Knicks were 3-0 against the Hawks this season, all close games in which New York pulled away late, including the series finale in April which entered overtime despite Young leaving due to injury. Julius Randle absolutely dominated this match-up, perhaps more than most others. He averaged 37.3 points, 12.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists against the Hawks, making half his threes and shooting 58% from the field.
On the flip side, Young had his struggles against the Knicks, averaging 24.7 points on 36.2% shooting from the field and 21.4% from deep, all below his season averages. The Hawks were able to remain competitive thanks to their abundance of new offensive options — Bogdan Bogdanovic, Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari, among others — all clicking as of late.
Three keys to victory
First, the Knicks will need to contain Young. He is the focal point of the Hawks offense, which though now features secondary playmakers, is still led by the sweet-shooting point guard.
During the regular season, the Knicks didn’t deploy any special schemes on Young, with the big in their usual drop coverage on pick-and-rolls and the point guard tasked with fighting to stay attached. This led to a lot of in-between shots, leaning floaters and lay-ups, as well as a few pull-ups, which worked to the Knicks favor given his efficiency.
Assuming the same approach is taken in the playoffs, the job is on Elfrid Payton and Derrick Rose. Payton arguably had the most success and was fundamentally sound on-ball, squeezing through screens and keeping active hands around Young so he didn’t feel comfortable shooting.
He can get complacent off-ball, however, and locking in on Young in transition is an absolute must. That’s where he’s most comfortable and can score or create at ease.
Rose had his moments and can certainly use his speed on Young. Immanuel Quickley had the most trouble of all and should likely hide elsewhere unless the Knicks have a decent lead. There’s also one more option: why not give Frank Ntilikina some run on Young? Yes, smaller, quicker guards are not his defensive forte, but Tom Thibodeau looked to him as a specialist in the past, albeit in spot minutes.
The big question with Young will come when he’s percolating from that in-between range. If the floaters are automatic, he’s successful creating out of that space and he’s lighting the Knicks up, does Thibodeau change the scheme up and make somebody else beat him? Does that change work, does it carry over to the next game? Or were the Hawks long dead by then?
Secondly, New York will need two 20-point-per-game scorers out of RJ Barrett, Alec Burks or Rose. It can be a different combination of the two each night, doesn’t matter.
As rock solid as this Knicks defense is, all three regular-season matchups were decided by high scores. Atlanta is going to get theirs and New York will have to keep pace offensively. Playoff defenses operate a bit differently, and will require the Knicks best creators to step up.
Barrett’s self-creation will be tested intensely in the postseason. He’ll have to make quicker reads and decisions, picking up mismatches to abuse down low and recognizing where the help is coming from for a dish out. Burks should have his games, and Rose is quite simply built for this.
Perhaps it’s Quickley who rises to the occasion. He doesn’t shy from the biggest moments and scorched Atlanta to the tune of 16, 16 and 20 points in three games this season.
Finally, the most dangerous Hawk behind Young is Clint Capela, and he gave New York significant problems in the paint during the regular season. He put up 17.3 points and 17.3 rebounds per game, with his biggest outings coming against Nerlens Noel. Containing him on the boards will be crucial.
Capela is, in short, a beast. Randle may not be able to help much while having to chase around Atlanta’s stretchy fours. Thibs may go to Taj Gibson at times to add a bit of girth down low. Help-the-helper wings Reggie Bullock and Barrett will need to play above their size. If the Knicks can get him into early foul trouble, they can open up the game for themselves big time.