Both the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks go into the NBA Playoffs with identical records of 41-31. This first-round series is incredibly evenly-matched.
NBA Playoffs First Round: New York Knicks vs. Atlanta Hawks Preview
The Hawks have one of the deepest and dynamic offenses in the Eastern Conference, while the Knicks boast one of the best defenses in the league. A top-10 offense against a top-four defense promises to be an interesting series.
It will also be interesting as both teams are inexperienced in postseason basketball. New York ended their eight-year NBA Playoffs drought this season. Meanwhile, this is the Hawks’ first appearance since the 2016-17 season. Both teams are very well-coached, so it will likely come down to the fine margins. New York may have a leg up in the series as they earned the 4th seed and homecourt based on a 3-0 head-to-head record. Games 1, 2, 5, and, if need be, 7 are at MSG with an increased capacity. This loyal fanbase has waited eight years for an NBA Playoffs series, and they will be loud and proud starting Sunday night to create an intimidating atmosphere for the Hawks.
Let’s have a look at both teams and how they got here, how they match up, and an overall series prediction.
Atlanta made a huge move mid-season which has paid tremendous dividends. Struggling at 14-20 and out of the playoff hunt, they replaced coach Lloyd Pierce with Nate McMillan. McMillan, previously known for his success coaching the Indiana Pacers, has done a tremendous job galvanizing this team in a short span. They finished 27-11 under his stewardship, second in the Eastern Conference over that stretch. The difference he has made created one of the hottest teams in the league going into the NBA playoffs.
Very Deep Offense
Point Guard and Atlanta’s main threat, Trae Young is, without doubt, one of the most gifted young players in the league offensively. He has infinite range, and a James Harden -esque ability to get to the line drawing contact. His scoring ability speaks for itself with his 25 points per game. His playmaking is excellent too, averaging an impressive 9.4 assists this year. He’s the main threat for the Hawks, but he’s far from the only threat.
Atlanta has a very deep array of shooters. They have a stretch-four in John Collins, who is developing nicely for the team and could be a budding star. They also have a treasure trove of 3-point shooters. Ex-Knick draftee Danilo Gallinari has been a consistent 3-point shooting threat in his long career to date. Bogdan Bogdanovic was signed to a large offer sheet in free agency from Sacramento, and he’s provided another threat from range. He is having a career-high year, averaging 16 points per game.
If this wasn’t enough scoring for you, they then went and traded for perennial Sixth Man candidate and beloved figure for his time at the LA Clippers, Lou Williams. Williams provides further know-how in tight games down the stretch as a scoring guard off the bench. Kevin Huerter also provides quality spot-up shooting from the perimeter.
They are a well-coached, deep, and dynamic offensive team who will give the Knicks a lot to handle.
New York Knicks
For the first time in eight years, the Knicks not only made the NBA Playoffs, but clinched home-court advantage in the first round. Going into this year they were projected by many to win a maximum of 22 games. Yet at 41-31, they crushed that, and have become one of the legitimate top teams, especially on the defensive end.
Look no further than Tom Thibodeau and Julius Randle when assessing the Knicks exceeding expectations.
Defense and culture
Thibodeau is a very strong Coach of the Year candidate with the remarkable job he’s done turning this franchise around. He created a winning culture based on hard work and accountability and good habits. He’s also one of the very best defensive coaches in the NBA and has been for many years. Defensively, the Knicks finished fourth in the NBA in overall defense.
This team has energized a city hit hard by the virus. The fans love their Knicks passionately, and even more so with how they fight hard every minute on the court and indefatigably refuse to quit. It’s refreshing to see a team so unselfish and focused on a team-oriented vision every game. Especially in a modern era which is often defined by player power and load management.
How they Matchup
Young vs. Payton
Yikes. Biggest edge here. Elfrid Payton has been bereft of confidence and has been a net-minus offensively. There is pressure mounting from the fanbase and local media for Thibodeau to go with Derrick Rose or Alec Burks, or the combination of the two, as often they have to make up deficits created by Payton’s black-hole on offense. In the NBA Playoffs, no team can win being a man down on the court.
Young is one of the most dynamic players in the league offensively. He can completely dominate the Knicks this series and averages 25 points and 12 assists against them this year. However, he really struggles from the defensive end and with turnovers. He will also have problems stopping Rose. As a former MVP, Rose is still one of the best guards in the league at weaving through traffic in the paint.
Hunter/Huerter vs. RJ Barrett
De’Andre Hunter is really a nice player who offers a lot to the team, but is just coming back from injury and may have a minutes restriction. Huerter is a solid spot-up shooter.
RJ Barrett has been the Knicks’ second scorer this year and improved his game massively to be a key contributor. He’s also an improving threat from the perimeter (39%), especially from the right corner where his percentages are higher.
Bogdanovic vs. Bullock
Bogdanovic has been a huge offensive force for the Hawks with the most efficient offensive output of his career.
Bullock has been tasked to defend most opponents’ best players, and he’s done so very well. He also has tremendous chemistry with Randle. The forward finds him open in the perimeter for catch-and-shoot threes where he’s shooting 40%. Bullock has been an unsung hero for the Knicks, so this matchup is closer than you think.
Collins vs. Randle
Collins is a developing stretch-four who has had a strong year and will be a force offensively in this series, he is not a great defender, however.
Randle will be on the All-NBA team, and has had a record-breaking year leading this Knicks team in every major statistical category. He also appears to be a lock to win the league’s Most Improved Player with MVP votes as well. Randle’s the first-ever Knick to average 20 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists in a season. His six triple-doubles was the third-most in a single season for the Knicks, behind Walt Frazier‘s eight.
He has now become a franchise cornerstone. To quote Thibodeau: “Randle is our engine. He makes us go.” He also has torched Collins in the previous matchups averaging 37 points per game against the Hawks this year.
Capela v Noel
Clint Capela gets the edge due to his huge size and strength, and elite offensive rebounding. He’s a load in the paint and the size differential will likely create second-chance opportunities. He has 48 double-doubles this season, 15 points per game, and 14 rebounds.
Nerlens Noel has been the Knicks defensive player of the year. He also ranks second in the NBA in blocks per game. He marshals the Knicks defense and is everywhere on the floor for the team. What he lacks in strength, he more than makes up for in leaping ability and IQ. This will be a very important matchup to watch. It’s a closer matchup than the numbers say; although Capela is the superior player, the Knicks wouldn’t be a top-four defensive team without Noel.
Rose will match up with Williams. Williams has been a wonderful scorer for many years. This year, however, Rose has carried this Knicks team at the point guard spot and has been the Knicks second most important player since his midseason trade from Detroit, and should get Sixth Man of the Year recognition.
Gallinari is a threat from the perimeter providing another scoring option for Atlanta.
New York has relied upon Burks offensively and defensively. Backed up by his 30-point, 10-rebound night against the Spurs last week. New York also boasts rookie scoring sensation Immanuel Quickley and savvy veteran Taj Gibson. Gibson has provided immense minutes for the Knicks at backup center, he’s the quintessential intangibles guy, and this slightly tips the bench in the Knicks’ favor. It’s extremely close as both teams have quality benches.
What the stats say: Per Elias Sports, the New York Knicks are one of two teams in NBA history to finish the season first in opposition points per game, opposition field goal percentage, and opposition 3-point percentage. The last team to do that was the 1992 Knicks, coincidently.
What the Stats say: The Hawks are the ninth rated team in NBA in TS percentage and overall offense, while the Knicks are 23rd in the league in both categories.
While the Knicks are near the bottom of the league in perimeter shooting volume, they are top-five in the NBA in perimeter shooting percentage which is a big plus.
Both coaches have turned their teams around incredibly quickly. Thibodeau however has completely changed the culture and took the Knicks from perennially one of the worst teams in the league, to a top-four Eastern Conference team and helped turn Randle into a franchise star.
NBA Playoffs First Round Prediction
Knicks in Seven.
This is likely to be an extremely tight series. The Knicks hold a 3-0 advantage in the regular season against the Hawks, and Randle has absolutely torched Atlanta this year, averaging an eye-popping 37 points, 12 rebounds, and 6.7 assists.
However, Atlanta has a superior and deeper offense and has been one of the hottest teams in the NBA since McMillan has taken charge. They have the kind of playmakers who will provide matchup nightmares on any given night. They are able to score in a variety of ways, not just perimeter shooting.
On the other hand, the Knicks defense is a throwback to the ’90s’ teams. They play with grit and they fight every minute. New York’s chemistry is second to none this year, which gives them a chance in every game.
Their offense is at its best when they move the ball and find open shooters, hence their high 3-point percentage. However, the ball can sometimes stick late in games, as they put it all in Randle’s hands. Ball movement is important in this series. They also need to be active to close down perimeter shooters, force turnovers, and score easy buckets in transition.
If the Knicks can trap Young and force him to shoot difficult contested shots, where he is shooting a low 34% from three, this could be a plus for the Knicks.
Overall, I would say, due to the homecourt advantage, the Knicks are in a good spot. They will play unrelenting physical defense. Furthermore, with Randle’s dominance against the Hawks, I give the edge to the Knicks in seven, but it will be close.
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