7:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Knicks -2, Over/Under: 213.5
Playoff basketball is back at Madison Square Garden for the first time in eight years, though the faithful may need to wait a bit longer to celebrate a victory as the (Five Seed) Atlanta Hawks look to prolong their misery a bit longer tonight in Game Two of this First Round Series against the (Four Seed) New York Knicks, from the world’s most famous arena in the city that never sleeps. While they haven’t had to wait nearly as long as their opponent, the Hawks (41-31, 5th in Eastern Conference) are back in the postseason for the first time since 2017, and by the looks of their performance in Sunday’s narrow 107-105 victory, they are far from simply happy to be here. Much was expected of Atlanta coming into this campaign, with the organization investing heavily in the offseason, adding the likes of (young sharpshooter) Bogdan Bogdanovic (16.4 PTS, 47.3% FG, 43.8% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 3.3 AST, 1.1 STL, 17.6 PER), along with (veterans) Rajon Rondo (3.9 PTS, 40.0% FG, 37.8% 3FG, 2.0 REB, 3.5 AST, 0.7 STL, 9.9 PER) and Danilo Gallinari (13.3 PTS, 43.4% FG, 40.6% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.6 STL, 16.3 PER) in Free Agency, to help further the development of the team’s young nucleus consisting of (All-Star Guard) Trae Young (25.3 PTS, 43.8% FG, 34.3% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 9.4 AST, 0.8 STL, 23.0 PER) and (versatile Forwards) John Collins (17.6 PTS, 55.6% FG, 39.9% 3FG, 7.4 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.5 STL, 1.2 BLK, 20.6 PER), Kevin Huerter (11.9 PTS, 43.2% FG, 36.3% 3FG, 3.3 REB, 3.5 AST, 1.2 STL, 12.2 PER), and De’Andre Hunter (15.0 PTS, 48.4% FG, 32.6% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 1.9 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.5 BLK, 15.7 PER). However, thanks to absences due to COVID-19 and a rash of injuries, this was a team that got off to a disappointing 14-20 start, which unfortunately cost (Head Coach) Lloyd Pierce his job after two and a half seasons. Simply put, there just wasn’t enough improvement to be found under Pierce’s watch this season, with the new faces struggling to fit in with their new teammates, both Bogdanovic (COVID-19) and Hunter (injury) missing a wealth of time, and even a lukewarm feud manifesting between Young and Collins (who has been angling for a max contract extension for months). So it’s with that said that the franchise promoted Nate McMillan, with the veteran tactician making an immediate impact; the Hawks won eight consecutive games following coaching change, en route to going 27-11 over the second half of the campaign, exhibiting great improvement on the offensive end of the hardwood, averaging 114.2 points on 48.0% shooting from the field, including 38.7% from beyond the arc, along with dishing out 24.0 assists in comparison to committing just 11.9 turnovers. The healthy return of Bogdanovic and Hunter helped immensely, while Rondo was flipped at the Trade Deadline in exchange for (veteran Sixth Man) Lou Williams (10.0 PTS, 38.9% FG, 44.4% 3FG, 2.1 REB, 3.4 AST, 10.8 PER), who has helped bring more firepower off the bench. Oh, and McMillan has apparently healed the rift between Young and Collins with both young stars putting their issues aside for the betterment of the team; Collins has averaged 17.1 points on a healthy 57.7 shooting, including 41.1% from three, while Young has developed into much more of a playmaking role than simply acting as a reckless sniper, dishing out a career-best 9.4 assists. The 22-year old’s playmaking prowess was on full display over the weekend, as he left quite an impression on the fans at Madison Square Garden, dropping pouring in a game-high thirty-two points on 11-of-23 shooting from the floor (47.8%), including 9-of-9 from the charity stripe (100.0%), along with seven rebounds and ten assists. And if that wasn’t enough, with the crowd chanting expletives at him in the Fourth Quarter, Young channeled his inner Reggie Miller and silenced them all with a running floater with just 0.9 seconds remaining to take the series lead. Furthermore, thirteen of his thirty-two points came in the final period of play, where he masterfully found ways to get to the free-throw line, netting all nine of his attempts. Bogdanovic would add eighteen points on 7-of-15 shooting overall (46.7%), including 4-of-9 from downtown (44.4%), while Williams and Collins chipped in with thirteen and twelve respectively. As a team, McMillan (who has long favored a slower approach that’s better suited for the Playoffs) must have been happy to see how his charges took care of the basketball (6 turnovers), while holding their own in both the paint (50-50) and transition (9-9). They also kept New York’s Starting Five in check, relegating them to only forty-one points. The victory snapped a four-game losing streak to the Knicks, whom they are now 2-8 against in the postseason all-time.
Meanwhile, even though they fell short in their long-awaited return to the Playoffs, it’s hard to argue that there was a better story in the National Basketball Association this season than the rise of the Knicks (41-31, 4th in Eastern Conference), which was both unexpected and completely welcome. This is a franchise that had been largely a laughing stock over the previous eight years, failing to win more than thirty-seven games in any campaign. A near decade of poor management, and a revolving door of executives, scouts, coaches, and players had doomed one of the most recognizable brands in sports to irrelevance, with no legitimate escape in sight. However, the ground work towards a rebirth was laid in the offseason when (much maligned owner) James Dolan hired (venerable agent) Leon Rose as Team President, which ultimately led to the appointment of (Head Coach) Tom Thibodeau, with the 63-year old returning to the franchise that he had spent seven years with as an assistant in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s. Of course, Thibodeau had spent the previous season in television following a largely disappointing run with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Eager to restore some of that lost luster to his name, he got to work on rebuilding the Knicks in his image: tenacious, gritty, and hard-working. Though they may not possess any superstars, this has been a group that has been greater than the sum of it’s parts throughout the campaign, all the while building everything around their relentless effort on the defensive end of the hardwood; Thibodeau’s charges relinquished the fewest points in the NBA (104.7) on 44.0% shooting from the field (1st Overall), including a mere 33.7% from downtown (1st Overall). Granted, this success can be attributed to operating at the slowest pace in the league by far (95.9 possessions per 48 minutes), though their ability to dictate that tempo to their opponents has been impressive nonetheless. And speaking of impressive, the seismic improvement of (versatile Forward) Julius Randle (24.1 PTS, 45.6% FG, 41.1% 3FG, 10.2 REB, 6.0 AST, 0.9 STL, 19.7 PER) has been this team’s greatest subplot; on the verge of becoming a journeyman, the 26-year old has been the poster boy for New York’s resurgence, posting career-highs in a slew of categories including points (24.2), three-point percentage (41.1%), free-throw percentage (81.1%), rebounds (10.2), assists (6.0), and steals (0.9). Where he’s developed the most is as a playmaker, nearly doubling his assist output with a six dimes a night, while also netting career-high 160 three-pointers. Another warming story has been the play of (veteran Point Guard) Derrick Rose (14.9 PTS, 48.7% FG, 41.1% 3FG, 2.9 REB, 4.2 AST, 0.9 STL, 18.8 PER), who has really made a positive impact after reuniting with Thibodeau, who drafted him No. One Overall back in 2008. By now we’re all well acquainted with the story of Rose, who was named 2010-2011 MVP (the youngest in NBA history), before a series of significant injuries derailed his career. Now 32-years old, the three-time All-Star arrived in the Big Apple for a second spell after reaching a buyout with the Detroit Pistons, and has since brought firepower off the bench with 14.9 points on 48.7% shooting, including 41.1% from three, along with 2.9 rebounds, and 4.2 assists. Furthermore, his presence has been nothing short of positive for the number of young players on the roster, including (2019 No. 2 Overall Pick) R.J. Barrett (17.6 PTS, 44.1% FG, 40.1% 3FG, 5.8 REB, 3.0 AST, 0.7 STL, 13.4 PER) and (2020 No. 25 Pick) Immanuel Quickley (11.4 PTS, 39.5% FG, 38.9% 3FG, 2.1 REB, 2.0 AST, 0.5 STL, 15.8 PER), who have each exhibited a great deal of growth this season. Winners of sixteen of their final twenty games heading into the postseason, the Knicks returned to the Playoffs with no shortage of momentum, though that aforementioned defeat to the Hawks did reveal some issues that need to be addressed immediately if they wish to advance to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. First and foremost, their overall lack of experience was very apparent in this affair, particularly in the case of the Starting Five, which could only muster a combined forty-one of their 105 total points, with the tandem of Randle and Barrett accounting for only twenty-nine points on 12-of-38 shooting from the field (31.6%), including 3-of-12 from the perimeter (25.0%). In his first foray into the Playoffs, it certainly looked that the moment was too big for Randle, at least in this case, as the newly christened Most Improved Player could manage just fifteen points on a dreadful 6-of-23 shooting (26.1%), with nearly as many turnovers (3) as assists (4). What kept the hosts in this game was their bench, led by Rose and Quickley, alongside Alec Burks (12.7 PTS, 42.0% FG, 41.5% 3FG, 4.6 REB, 2.2 AST, 0.6 STL, 14.8 PER), who exploded for a team-high twenty-seven points on 9-of-13 shooting (69.2%), including 3-of-5 from downtown (60.0%) and 6-of-8 from the charity stripe (75.0%). Now on his sixth team in three years, the 29-year old journeyman was lost to the NBA’s Health and Safety Protocols for nearly two weeks earlier in the season, though has served as reliable source of energy and production off the bench. With that said, it goes without saying that the Knicks must get more production out of their starters, particularly Randle, who has taken such seismic leaps in his development into an All-Star this season.