2021 Playoffs: East First Round | Knicks vs. Hawks

Series preview: Playoff newbies Knicks, Hawks ready to keep late rolls going

The Knicks are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2013, while the Hawks last appeared in 2016.

Do Hawks have plan to slow down Randle?

The Knicks snag the No. 4 seed and will face off against the No. 5 seed Hawks.

Going from playoffs to playoffs, both the Knicks and the Hawks will be bringing crews short on postseason experience into their best-of-seven series. We’re not talking Sacramento Kings-like (15 years and counting), but New York last reached the playoffs in 2013 and Atlanta hasn’t appeared since 2016.

What changed? Their head coaches, to start. The Knicks brought in Tom Thibodeau before this season began and, working largely with the same roster that went 21-45 in 2019-20, Thibs crafted a 20-victory improvement to 41-31. His defense-first focus shaved their defensive rating from 112.4 to 107.8, while the offense improved early as much (105.9 to 110.2).

The Hawks did their renovation on the fly. Lloyd Pierce was fired after sputtering to a 14-20 mark through February. Eminently qualified assistant Nate McMillan slid over one seat and pushed a reset. Atlanta went from a negative net rating to plus-4.5, and its improvement since March 1 — 27-11 the rest of the way — was even greater by winning percentage (plus-.299) than New York’s year-over-year turnaround (plus-.251).

A second-round pairing against top seeded Philadelphia awaits the winner here, so this is the opportunity the Knicks and the Hawks want to flex as playoff newbies on equal footing with their foe.

Three things to watch:

1. PG matchup looks like a blowout. Atlanta’s Trae Young will get some love on All-NBA ballots, owing to his 25.3 ppg and 9.4 apg. He makes the Hawks’ attack go, spoon-feeding Clint Capela and John Collins easy buckets around the rim. He averaged 24.7 and 12 in three games vs. New York. Point guard for the Knicks, by contrast, has been a sore spot for much of the season. Elfrid Payton gets the starts but Derrick Rose, Alec Burks, rookie Immanuel Quickley and Frank Ntilikina all have logged time there as Thibodeau deal with injuries and flipped through various not-great options.

2. Has Randle run out of gas yet? Julius Randle will dominate in the Kia Most Improved voting and get some nods on Kia MVP ballots, indicative of the heavy lifting he’s done for New York. The next step in his first taste of the postseason is to thrive when your opponent has two weeks and multiple games to choke you out of the game plan. Collins, Capela and other fresh Atlanta bodies will target this head of the Knicks snake.

3. The sag when the starters sit. New York ranked third in bench scoring per 48 minutes since the All-Star break (105.2), compared to Atlanta’s 95.6. Big gap, except that benches matter more in quality than quantity in the playoffs as rotations typically tighten. The Hawks’ bench numbers got blurred, too, by their heavy load of injuries all season. Besides, Atlanta’s edge for starters over the same chunk of schedule is 124.5 to 108.7.

Number to know

6.2 — The Knicks ranked fourth in the league defensively, allowing 107.8 points per 100 possessions, 4.6 fewer than they did last season, when they ranked 23rd. When you take into account that the league average jumped by 1.6 points per 100 possessions, that’s a year-to-year improvement of 6.2 per 100, the best year-to-year defensive improvement of the last seven years. And the Knicks did that with 64% of their minutes coming from guys who were on the roster last season. Nerlens Noel, the only player in the league to average at least one steal and two blocks per game, was a huge addition. But most of the improvement came from within.

The Hawks, meanwhile, went from the bottom 10 to the top 10 on offense, seeing the league’s second biggest jump in points scored per 100 possessions (+7.3). They saw the biggest drop in turnover rate, its second biggest jump in offensive rebounding percentage, and its fifth biggest jump in free throw rate. Of course, when these two teams met in the regular season, it was the other end of the floor that determined things. The Knicks ranked 22nd offensively overall, but had the second most efficient offense (123.1 points per 100 possessions) against Atlanta.

— John Schuhmann

The pick

Identical 41-31 records suggests an even matchup, as does the two teams’ late-season success (Atlanta went 7-1 to close, New York 16-4). Neither team totes much playoff experience into this, particularly among key guys such as Randle (zero) and Young (zip). Even the Knicks’ 3-0 regular-season sweep doesn’t fully translate, since two of the victories came while Pierce still was on the Hawks’ bench. Homecourt advantage, especially with Madison Square Garden letting in about 5,700 fans for the playoffs, might be enough to swing this. Knicks in seven.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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