As the clock ran out at Madison Square Garden in game 5, so too an anti-climactic end to the New York Knicks great season. This gutsy team captured the imagination of the city, creating some of the loudest atmospheres seen at MSG or indeed any arena in many years. Fans could be forgiven for thinking they had a shot at beating the Atlanta Hawks. However, it was soon clear the Knicks didn’t really belong on the same floor as the Hawks for much of it. It was quite simple, the Hawks had a superstar on the court and the Knicks did not. While Knicks fans have a right to be disappointed with the nature of the defeat, they should still feel optimistic about the future of the franchise after over-achieving this year. Yes, this playoff defeat was disappointing, but the Knicks playoff loss shouldn’t detract from their strong season and ambitions moving forward. Let’s have a look at the factors behind the loss.
New York Knicks Playoff Loss: Trae Young Plays Pantomime Villain
New Yorkers love a Broadway show, they didn’t plan on it being from the opponent at MSG. Trae Young certainly put on a show. It started with 30+ points, plenty of gesticulations at the home crowd, and a game-winner with 0.9 seconds on the clock in game 1. It finished in game 5, with a 35-foot 3-pointer with the game in hand 48 seconds on the clock. Prompting him to bow and wave to the booing Knick fans.
Young was the X factor in the series. Young himself said: “I know where we are, there are a bunch of Broadway shows around the city, and I know what they do when the show is over.” Atlanta Hawks were fairly mouthy over the series but backed it up. It will surely be the start of a fun rivalry. Clint Capela boasted before game 5 of sending them for an early vacation. New York simply had no answer to Capela’s size or the Hawks’ array of weapons. It was a startling reminder that superior talent beats a plucky team in the playoffs.
Young finished with 36 points in Game 5 along with averaging 29 points and 9.8 assists in the series. He also had 30+ points in each of the three-game at MSG this series. Knicks simply didn’t know what to do with him. Young destroyed the Knicks on the high pick and roll, and they failed to take away his right side when he drove to the basket to win the game on the final possession in game 1. As the series progressed, his multiple ways of scoring and dishing was too much for them to stop. Young is an emerging star who is now ready to take the whole NBA by storm.
Julius Randle Stifled
Credit to Atlanta coach Nate McMillan for their defensive game-plan. He did a tremendous job in this series making the most of his team’s strengths and stifling the Knicks’ strengths. Namely, Julius Randle. Pinpointing him as New York’s main threat, Atlanta threw elaborate defensive schemes at him. They doubled him and sometimes tripled him and took away his natural left side. Julius looked discombobulated and rushed, forcing him into turnovers, contested shots, and bad possessions. Questions will be asked about Randle’s struggles this series as he shot a horrific 29% from the field with many turnovers. More credit should go to Atlanta though, whose defense coming into this series was perhaps under-rated. They showed they are a very astute defensive team under McMillan. They can continue to make noise in the rest of this year’s playoffs too.
Lack of Point Guard Depth Haunted New York Knicks
This was a clear disadvantage going into the playoffs, and so it proved. Thibodeau had Elfrid Payton starting, with Derrick Rose providing the bulk of the minutes off the bench. Despite Elfrid’s struggles, he liked the significant boost Rose gave the second unit. Rose was terrific this year, he finished 3rd in the Sixth Man of the Year voting. As it turned out, he was by far the Knicks’ best offensive player in the playoff series, willing them to their lone victory in Game 2.
However, therein lies the rub. Elfrid went into the playoffs in startlingly bad form. He hadn’t scored a single point in multiple games going into this series. Thus limiting him to 5 minutes on either side of each half. In the playoffs, Elfrid continued to struggle on the court, and Thibodeau knew that his position at starter was untenable. At half-time of Game 2 down double digits, he removed Payton for Rose propelling them to a comeback victory. In turn, prompting him to start the rest of the series.
However, this proved more like robbing Peter to pay Paul. As the series progressed, Rose certainly helped the first unit. However, the second unit took a huge hit without his scoring. Rose started to tire down the stretch playing starters minutes and Atlanta pressed home their advantage. Knicks essentially had no backup to Rose as Payton was unplayable. These factors proved telling in the Knicks playoff loss.
Atlanta Hawks Shooters Rule the Series
Atlanta did a great job of surrounding Young with plenty of shooters. Bogdan Bogdanovic had a huge series and was a great second option. Gallinari hit big shots, as did Hunter and Collins. Even on rare occasions, they trapped Young, usually the second or third read was wide-open. It was somewhat surprising how the Knicks’ elite regular-season defense was completely out-matched. To explore the reasons for this, it may have been down to playoff inexperience. Arguably their offensive struggles played a part also. Often their half-court defense couldn’t get set, as turnovers and missed shots often lead to being caught in transition for easy buckets. As mentioned, Atlanta gave Young a nice array of scoring options. Whereas in Randle’s case, unlike the regular season, the Knicks supporting cast couldn’t provide enough support to him.
Turning Back Time
There were bright spots, however. As mentioned earlier, Derrick Rose gave his all. This was a nice comeback story. He has had a long road back since his MVP season and his many injuries since then. He’s re-invented himself and at 32, turned back the clock with his forays into the paint through much of this year. His play willed the Knicks to their lone playoff victory.
Taj Gibson really turned back the clock and had an incredible series on the defensive end battling gamely despite Clint Capela’s dominance and size advantage. Gibson isn’t the type of player to flash on the stat sheet, but the sheer amount of work he did was so impressive despite his team being over-matched. He had to start much of the series due to Nerlens Noel’s early series injury, which robbed the Knicks of a shot-blocking presence. Capela was still unstoppable in the paint however especially in game 5.
Reasons to be Positive
Objectively this was a transition year. They doubled their win probability and outworked many opponents to a lofty 4th seed while making the most of the sum of their parts. This was done through tremendous coaching, development, and a team-first mentality.
Another reason to be positive was their rookies weren’t daunted by the playoff series. Immanuel Quickley and especially Obi Toppin provided plenty of energy and appeared to look considerably more able for the occasion than their veteran starters.
Overall they can use this loss as a springboard to attack the offseason. Every defeat provides lessons, and this is a valuable lesson that the Knicks need to add significant talent. This is not news to their front office, Leon Rose and his experienced front office have a distinct plan to improve. They will build incrementally with their young talent while waiting in the grass to be aggressive in a deal for a franchise-changing player via free agency or trade. Certainly, a starting point guard is an immediate need this offseason.
Their foundation is set, they have a very good player in Randle. He’s fresh off an all-NBA season and winning the league’s Most Improved Player award. It’s now down to the front office adding the right pieces around him as Atlanta did for Young.
New York Knicks Playoff Loss Should be a Springboard
To quote head coach Tom Thibodeau: “I’m proud of what our team accomplished this year. Obviously, disappointed with the result, and hopefully, we learn from it and get better. I thought our guys gave everything they had all year long.”
With the way the team fought each game, they made their fans believe in them, and they made their city proud. This was meant to be a transition year, they ended up making the playoffs for the first time in 8 years. This won’t distract from the next phase of the rebuild to be implemented, however. While the loss stings and takes some of the shine off the season inevitably, they were beaten by a better team. This loss should act as a springboard to acquiring the talent to push the blue and orange towards a bright and exciting future.
Embed from Getty Images