Anchored by Clint Capela, Hawks' defense suffocates Knicks
While Trae Young was the star of the series, Atlanta's defense deserves a lot credit for shutting down New York.
The Atlanta Hawks flipped the script on the New York Knicks.
The Knicks were the top-five defense in the regular season under new head coach Tom Thibodeau, winning ugly* more than twice as much as the Hawks did. New York ranked first in both opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area (60.5%) and opponent 3-point percentage (33.7%), with no other team ranking in the top seven in both.
* The Knicks were 14-25 when they scored fewer than 110 points per 100 possessions, while the Hawks were 5-15.
But in their first-round series, things were much uglier on the Knicks end of the floor. And while the Knicks carry some of the responsibility for how much they struggled offensively, the Hawks were simply the better defensive team. Appropriately, they closed out the series by holding the Knicks under a point per possession in a 103-89 victory in Game 5 on Wednesday.
Trae Young capped it off with a long 3 and an ostentatious bow at center court in Madison Square Garden. He was the star of this series, averaging 29.2 points and 9.8 assists. But the Hawks won with what has been the 11th-ranked offense in the first round. They advance to an Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Philadelphia 76ers (Game 1 is Sunday) behind a defense that held the Knicks to just 102.1 points per 100 possessions, 8.1 fewer than they scored in the regular season.
Here are five plays from Game 5 where that illustrate what the Hawks were able to do defensively:
1. Fight from Hunter
The Hawks’ defense on Julius Randle was a group effort, but it started with De’Andre Hunter, who played in just five of the Hawks’ last 53 games of the regular season, but returned just in time to guard the reigning Kia Most Improved Player in the playoffs.
On one first-quarter possession, Hunter pressured the ball and fought over a Derrick Rose screen to keep Randle in front of him. And when Randle tried to change direction, Young was there to force a turnover …
Midway through the third quarter, Hunter played great one-on-one defense on Randle, preventing him from getting anywhere and forcing a tough, step-back jumper with one second on the shot clock …
2. Help and rotate
Later in the first quarter, the Knicks gained an advantage when Young trailed Reggie Bullock around a hand-off from Randle. But Bogdan Bogdanovic took away Bullock’s drive and John Collins rotated up on the kick-out to Rose (who did have time and space to shoot a 3). When Rose swung the ball to RJ Barrett in the corner, Bogdanovic got there. And when Barrett drove into the paint, Clint Capela was there to protect the rim …
3. The anchor
Capela has been the anchor of the Hawks’ defense all season. And in the series, the Hawks allowed 11.9 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor (97.4) than they did with him off the floor (109.3). Things will obviously be different in the next round if Embiid plays, but against the Knicks, Capela was able to ignore Taj Gibson and Nerlens Noel with minimal consequence.
Early in the second quarter, Barrett was able to drive by Danilo Gallinari on an isolation, but Capela was there to block his shot …
4. Put out the fire
Midway through the third quarter, Randle tried to drive by Gallinari, but Young was there. Bullock tried setting a ball screen, but Randle was looking to hand the ball off and picked up his dribble. When Bullock slipped out of the screen, Kevin Huerter left Rose to make sure he didn’t get open as Young scrambled back to his man. And when Rose cut behind Huerter, Hunter was there to take away that pass. Randle got the ball to Noel, who stepped on the baseline trying to drive by Collins …
5. Switch and deal
The Hawks were, at times, able to keep the Knicks getting to the basket by switching screens. Sometimes, they put them in unfavorable matchups, but they were able to help the compromised defender and rotate from there.
Late in the third quarter, Gallinari switched onto Alec Burks, who wanted to take him off the dribble. But Onyeka Okongwu was there to help on Burks’ drive and the Hawks put out another fire. Okongwu was there again to when Gibson set a late ball screen, blocking Burks’ stepback jumper and forcing a 24-second violation.
Defense wins series
Philadelphia ranked 13th offensively in the regular season, but is coming off a series in which it scored more than 121 points per 100 possessions. Both the Sixers’ potency and the Hawks’ defensive game plan will obviously be determined by the status of Joel Embiid, who is dealing with a meniscus tear in his right knee.
Either way, the Hawks have shown that they can take away a primary option without getting compromised elsewhere on the floor. That’s playoff defense, and it gives them a chance against the No. 1 seed.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.