Knicks vs. Hawks playoff preview: Atlanta must decide how to slow Julius Randle; can New York stop Trae Young?

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Welcome to the “it’s an honor just to be nominated” series of the first round. Neither the New York Knicks nor the Atlanta Hawks have serious championship aspirations this season, so making it even this far should be considered a success for both. 

The Hawks have missed the past five postseasons during an occasionally ugly rebuild, they splurged on a number of expensive free agents this offseason in an effort to crack the top eight, and when that seemingly failed early in the season, they fired head coach Lloyd Pierce and replaced him with assistant Nate McMillan. The Hawks have been on a tear since then, and by reaching this series, they’ve not only achieved their goal of making the playoffs, but have avoided the top three contenders in the Eastern Conference. After falling as far as 11th in the Eastern Conference on March 10, they’re now in position to potentially win a playoff series.

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To do so, they’ll have to beat a Knicks team coming off of an even longer drought. The Knicks haven’t made the postseason since the 2012-13 season. By virtue of their No. 4 seed, the Knicks will have home-court advantage in only their third playoff series since 2002. The city of New York has waited years for a Knicks team this good, and even if a championship is out of the picture right now, a win over the Hawks would legitimize their turnaround. Both teams want to take the leap into title contention next season, and that starts with this series. Here’s everything you need to know about Knicks-Hawks

No. 4 New York Knicks vs. No. 5 Atlanta Hawks 

All times Eastern

  • Game 1: Sunday, May 23, 7 p.m. | TV: TNT
  • Game 2: Wednesday, May 26, 7:30 p.m. | TV: TNT
  • Game 3: Friday, May 28, 7 p.m. | TV: ESPN
  • Game 4: Sunday, May 30, 1 p.m. | TV: ABC
  • *Game 5: Wednesday, June 2, TBD | TV: TBD
  • *Game 6: Friday, June 4, TBD | TV: TBD
  • *Game 7: Sunday, June 6, TBD | TV: TBD

*If necessary

Featured Game | New York Knicks vs. Atlanta Hawks

Storylines1. Wrangling Randle

The actual outcomes in this season series are mostly meaningless. The Knicks swept the Hawks, but likely would have lost the final game had Trae Young not gotten hurt, and Atlanta was missing several key players in the second matchup. The process that led to those Knicks wins should terrify the Hawks, though. Julius Randle averaged a staggering 37.3 points on 58/50/82 shooting splits to go along with 12.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game in those three battles with Atlanta. If he does so here, the Knicks win the series easily.

John Collins took on the Randle assignment for most of those regular-season battles. Randle shot 61.9 percent from the field against him in those games. If the Hawks want to move away from that matchup, they have two viable options, and each comes with its own drawbacks. 

The obvious move would be to flip their front-court matchups. Let Clint Capela guard Randle while Collins hides on New York’s center, which will usually be Nerlens Noel. This is probably the best overall option, but it risks foul trouble for Capela and likely ends with the Knicks forcing Collins and Young to defend plenty of pick-and-rolls together. Atlanta would have to scheme around that because those two aren’t stopping anyone alone. Capela can handle Randle, but taking him off of Noel sacrifices rim protection against everybody else.

The less obvious choice would be to let De’Andre Hunter try his luck against Randle. Hunter is coming off of an injury and gives up nearly 25 pounds against Randle, but no Hawk would do a better job of denying him the ball, and Atlanta could always rotate help into the paint for his post-ups. The question here becomes if Hunter is guarding Randle, who guards RJ Barrett? Certainly not Collins, but where does he hide if Capela is on Noel? A sneaky option here might be to let him nominally guard Elfrid Payton, but sag off of him and play free safety. That prevents Young from doing the same, though. There isn’t an obvious configuration for Atlanta here. When it comes to the Randle matchup, they’re going to have to pick their poison.

2. Attacking Trae

Speaking of Atlanta’s defense, the other elephant in the room here is how Young will hold up in the playoffs. There are viable questions on both ends of the floor here. Will Young get the same calls on offense he does in the regular season? Is he durable enough at his size to play more than 40 minutes if needed? Ultimately Young is still a star, and the answers here really don’t get worse than “he’ll be fine.”

But the defensive flaws are more glaring, and the postseason is where they’re going to be attacked. The only question is whether or not the Knicks are equipped to attack them. Teams with star offensive players on the perimeter would hunt for Young in switches as opponents have done to Stephen Curry for years, but are Barrett and Derrick Rose good enough to justify such matchup jiggering? When Payton is on the floor, Young has a readymade hiding spot. The same is true for Frank Ntilikina, who will likely get decent minutes specifically to defend Young. 

The ancillary benefit of hunting for Young defensively is that the more energy he has to expend playing on-ball defense, the less he has for offense. That would have been more of a problem in the past, but now that Atlanta has Bogdan Bogdanovic as a capable secondary shot-creator, the Hawks can manage Young’s load more effectively, especially since the Knicks don’t have a perimeter stopper to throw on either. As we progress deeper into the playoffs, there might be teams capable of exploiting Young’s size and defensive weaknesses, but the Knicks don’t have the offensive firepower to win a series off of that alone.

3. The world’s most famous arena

The absence of fans in most arenas was one of the biggest stories of the season primarily due to its impact on offenses. The seven most efficient offenses in NBA history all played this season. Shooting records were broken around the league. But if this scoring boom was at all due to the absence of fans, offenses might be in for a rude awakening as more and more buildings increase capacity for the postseason. 

The Knicks are the most extreme example. They ended the regular season with a stadium capacity of 1,980 fans. They will allow 15,000 fans to attend games this series, and remember, these are rabid New York fans enjoying their first playoff basketball in almost a decade. They are going to be loud. 

In theory, this impacts Atlanta far more than New York. The Hawks rely far more on offense than the Knicks do, and the Knicks take so few 3-pointers that variance in that area isn’t particularly detrimental to them relative to other teams. Four of the seven games in this series will be played in New York, and now that fans are returning to the building, home-court advantage means more than ever.

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