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No Longer an Afterthought, the Knicks Are a Playoff Threat


If you picked the Knicks before the season to have home-court advantage in the first round of the N.B.A. playoffs, you should probably head straight to Las Vegas because, as Bobby Bacala might note, not even Quasimodo could have predicted all this.

For the rest of us, there is another opportunity not to underestimate this year’s Knicks. In the first round, they will host the Atlanta Hawks in the Knicks’ first trip to the playoffs since the 2012-13 season. The Hawks haven’t made the postseason since the 2016-17 season.

Drawing the Hawks was a best-case scenario for the Knicks. Thanks in part to a three-game winning streak to close the season, they locked down the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference, and avoided the Milwaukee Bucks, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Nets, the top tier of the conference. This is not to say the Hawks should be overlooked. They will enter the postseason as one of the hottest teams in the N.B.A. after winning seven of their last eight.

But this is a winnable series for the Knicks, and it would be just their second postseason series win in this century. Both teams were 41-31, but the Knicks had the tiebreaker, giving them the higher seed.

Here is a look at the two teams heading into the postseason.

Atlanta had high hopes after adding Rajon Rondo, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari and Kris Dunn in the off-season and trading for Clint Capela toward the end of last season. But a combination of injuries and a lack of cohesion, particularly on the defensive end, kept the Hawks from being a top-tier team. Like the Knicks, the Hawks were inconsistent in the first half of the regular season, which prompted the firing of their coach, Lloyd Pierce, in March. Rondo was later traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for Lou Williams.

Nate McMillan took over for Pierce as the interim head coach, and the Hawks finished the season 27-11 — the third best team in the N.B.A. in that span. The Knicks were the ninth best team in the league in that same period.

The Knicks were also a good draw for the Hawks, since both teams lack playoff experience and are evenly matched.

Jan. 4: Knicks over Hawks, 113-108 (in Atlanta)

Feb. 15: Knicks over Hawks, 123-112 (in New York)

April 21: Knicks over Hawks, 137-127 (in New York; overtime)

The Knicks had the Hawks’ number this season, beating them in all three of their matchups. There is no team that Julius Randle, the Knicks’ best player, was better against. He averaged 37.3 points in the three games — his highest average against any team this season — along with 12.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists.

But the Hawks were missing key players in each game, such as Gallinari and Bogdanovic, and they were a much different team in the second half of the season, so it’s difficult to read too much into these results. With Pierce as coach, the Hawks were 12th offensively and 22nd defensively. Under McMillan, Atlanta was a top-10 offensive team and morphed into an above-average defensive one.

24.1 points/10.2 rebounds/6.0 assists/45.6 field-goal percentage

Randle’s career year makes him a candidate for an All-N.B.A. team. He led the league in minutes and missed only one game. The Hawks will surely throw double teams at him early and often. And in theory, players like Capela, John Collins and De’Andre Hunter should be able to frustrate Randle, but Randle did just fine during the regular season. He is skilled at finding open shooters and evading double teams.

The issue for the Knicks has been getting Randle consistent help on the offensive end, where they were 22nd in the league.

25.3 points/9.4 assists/3.9 rebounds/43.8 field-goal percentage

Young is one of the best scorers in the N.B.A. and the engine that spurs the Atlanta offense. Despite his small frame, he can create space and score whenever he needs to because of his ball-handling and shooting skills. He is also an exceptional passer, one of two players in the league averaging at least nine assists per game. (Russell Westbrook is the other.) Luckily for the Knicks, their defense is designed to stop a player who thrives in isolation in the way Young does. RJ Barrett is a solid defender, and the Knicks had one of the league’s best defenses.

Dunn made his debut for the Hawks in late April after signing as a free agent in the off-season. Because of a knee injury, he missed all but four games. Dunn is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, and now that he’s healthy, he may cause problems for RJ Barrett, Derrick Rose and the rest of the Knicks’ guard rotation.

In January, Hunter, a second-year forward, averaged 18.7 points and 4.9 rebounds in 14 games on 53.3 percent shooting. For the rest of the season, he played only five games because of a knee injury that required surgery. On Sunday, Hunter played 24 minutes. If he had stayed healthy all season, he might have been considered for an All-Star spot.

Like Randle and Barrett, Hunter made a leap this season. If he is anywhere close to what he was in January, that spells trouble for the Knicks. The Hawks have been playing great basketball over the last month, and adding players as good as Dunn and Hunter at this stage of the season is a luxury most teams don’t have.

Noel and Ntilikina aren’t flashy players. Noel has trouble catching the ball underneath the basket. Ntilikina barely gets on the floor. But Noel is one of the best rim protectors in the N.B.A., and Ntilikina is an excellent wing defender. The Hawks like to penetrate and create open looks or alley-oops. Having Noel at the rim may help limit opportunities for Young to connect with Capela and Collins, while Ntilikina may get more time on the floor to keep Young from getting into the paint, something Thibodeau said was a possibility on Wednesday. And really, Ntilikina should probably eat into some of Elfrid Payton’s minutes.

Slow and probably low-scoring. Both teams were near the bottom of the league in pace, and playoff games typically have fewer possessions as defenses lock down.

There will also be fans! It will not be the same atmosphere the Garden had in the 1990s playoff runs, but about 13,000 fans will be allowed at Knicks’ home games. Vaccinated fans will have their own section, where social distancing won’t be required. Others who show negative results for an antigen or coronavirus test can sit in socially distanced sections.

Randle will continue his dominance of the Hawks. The Knicks’ suboptimal offense will get help from Atlanta’s suboptimal defense. Doubling Randle will frustrate the Hawks because of his ability to create open looks for perimeter shooters. Also, the Knicks are an elite 3-point-shooting team.

On top of all this, Knicks Coach Tom Thibodeau is a master at developing schemes to slow players like Young. As great a coach as McMillan is in the regular season, he has had minimal success in the playoffs. In nine trips to the postseason, he has coached only one team to a series win (the 2004-5 Seattle SuperSonics).

Young will establish himself as a top-level star by carving up the Knicks’ defense. A Hawks team that is almost entirely healthy for the first time all season will finally show the potential that many analysts saw before the season. The player who unexpectedly hurts the Knicks the most will be Bogdanovic, who doubled his scoring output after the All-Star break under McMillan, giving Young a dynamic backcourt partner.

And Williams, the streaky scoring guard, will win one game almost single-handedly for Atlanta.

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