The Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks square off in the most evenly matched series of the first round in the Eastern Conference. Having a level playing field isn’t strange for a series pitting a No. 4 seed against a No. 5 seed with an identical record, but this is also an intriguing stylistic clash between a defense-first entity in the Knicks and an offense-driven team in the Hawks.
Before the matchup transpires, ink will be spilled on all sides, illuminating what was a storybook season from the Knicks in vastly overachieving their expectations. On the other side, the Hawks rose to prominence after a shaky 14-20 start, with Nate McMillan turning things around immediately upon arrival. There are some specific factors that could swing the outcome, though, and we’ll explore a small handful before things tip off this weekend at Madison Square Garden.
Matchup to Watch
Julius Randle really enjoyed seeing the Hawks on the other side of the floor during the regular season. Randle averaged more points (37.3 per game) against Atlanta than he did against any other team, and he also tossed in 12.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game in three victories. Part of that was hot shooting, with Randle converting 58 percent from the floor and 50 percent from three-point range, but part of it was that Atlanta’s defense simply had no answers.
Granted, the Hawks were banged up without their full roster for the vast majority of the season, and Atlanta will be healthier in Game 1 of this series than they have been at any point under Nate McMillan. Still, the Hawks don’t have a perfect defender to deter Randle and, considering Randle is the linchpin to any success New York is likely to have offensively, that could be a challenge.
De’Andre Hunter is rounding into form after a long-term knee injury, and the 6’8 forward could provide some resistance against Randle. From there, the Hawks used John Collins extensively against Randle in the regular season, and that is a more traditional 4-vs-4 matchup. Atlanta might even go to All-Defense contender Clint Capela as a Randle stopper, with other options like Solomon Hill lurking on the bench.
Regardless, Randle absolutely has to have a big series for the Knicks to win and the Hawks undoubtedly know it. McMillan and his staff have to be thinking about this matchup, and they spent Sunday’s blowout victory over the Rockets seemingly tinkering with defensive alignments in preparation.
What is Trae Young’s playoff debut going to look like? That is a question many are asking and one that has been in the water since Young’s star turn during his second season. First, Atlanta really needs Young to be good. The Hawks were +5.2 points per 100 possessions with Young on the floor and -3.4 points per 100 with him on the bench this season, and he is unquestionably the centerpiece of their above-average offensive attack.
With that out of the way, Young did a lot of his damage at the free throw line this season, with middling perimeter shooting numbers down the stretch. Will he get the same officiating treatment or will he fall into some of the traps seen by James Harden when the free throw numbers dry up a touch? What about the defensive side of the floor where he is a glaring target for the Knicks?
In some ways, this is a good series to get Young’s feet wet at the highest levels. The Knicks aren’t overwhelmingly good on offense and, though they will undoubtedly pick on him, the matchups could be manageable. Offensively, Young isn’t going to face a full-fledged “stopper” on the perimeter, and the Knicks might deploy drop coverages that could be friendly to his approach.
The Hawks will have trouble posting efficient offensive numbers without some explosions from Young, and his performance could decide this series.
One Stat To Know
The Knicks finished the regular season with a 55.9 percent true shooting mark. While that isn’t a disastrous number, it ranked just 23rd in the NBA during this offensively charged season, and New York was just 22nd in offense in scoring 110.2 points per 100 possessions. Much has been made of New York’s 3-0 season series sweep over Atlanta, and one statistic jumps off the page from those three games.
New York posted an obscene 63.7 percent true shooting mark against Atlanta, with 52/48/81 shooting splits.
Obviously, it would be aggressive (and likely silly) to assume the Knicks can replicate that kind of shooting display over the course of a seven-game series. For one thing, the Hawks will be fielding their best lineups and with Atlanta’s health rounding into form, there will be fewer weaknesses. From there, offense is simply harder to come by in the postseason, and the Knicks have to prove that they can score effectively enough on the inevitable night in which they aren’t just shooting the lights out against the Hawks.