First Round Preview: New York Knicks vs. Atlanta Hawks

“Knickstape baby, we here!” – RJ Barrett

Despite dismal predictions, one of the longest-running playoff droughts in the NBA, and a new coach at the helm, the New York Knicks are going to the 2021 NBA Playoffs. They defied all the odds and finished the season in the fourth seed, securing home-court advantage for the first round. With COVID-19 regulations loosening up, The Mecca will be LOUD.

It won’t be easy, however.

The Knicks will face the Atlanta Hawks, who finished in the fifth seed. They finished with the same record as the Knicks, meaning they are about as even of a match-up as you can get. They have a great mix of young players and experienced veterans who all play hard. The Knicks have built their team similarly, meaning it will be a great series to watch for casuals and die-hard fans alike no matter what happens.

With that in mind, let’s take a deeper look into the biggest storylines.

The Knicks Have the Hawks’ Number

If you want a preview as to what this series will look like, look no further than the previous games between these teams. The Knicks and Hawks played each other three times this season. In those three games, the Knicks were 3-0, with their most recent win coming on April 21st. In that 137-127 overtime victory, Julius Randle went off with 40 points and 11 rebounds for the double-double. Additionally, Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley finished the game with 20 points apiece.

In the other two games, the Knicks won 113-108 and 123-112. Across all three of these contests, Randle has excelled. In three games against the Hawks so far this season, Randle is averaging 37.3 points per game, including a 58.1 FG% and a 50.0 3P%. Barrett comes afterward, averaging 21.o points per game. Interestingly enough, two other Knicks have a FG% and a 3P% higher than 50%: Quickley and Rose.

A Battle Between Two Stars

Naturally, this series is a matchup between two, well-balanced and well-built teams. However, all eyes will be on the two players who have played massive roles for their respective teams.

Julius Randle and Trae Young.

Nothing more needs to be said about Randle; he has been the Knicks’ best player, he was an All-Star this season and he’s the front-runner for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. As for Young, he is in a similar position to Randle. He is the face of the team and their most productive player, averaging 25.3 points per game. Even though he was not an All-Star this year, he did make it last season. While he is younger than Randle, he has still become a huge part of Atlanta’s team and is arguably the face of that franchise. No matter what the other players do on either team, it will always come down to these two. They are the brightest stars and, in the bright lights of the playoffs, it will be an intriguing showcase of their talents.

A Tale of Two Defenses

The best highlights of any playoff series are the big, offensive plays. Take, for example, Lebron James‘ shot over Stephen Curry in the play-in game. It was a ridiculous shot by an incredible player, but more people are talking about that than the Warriors being unable to score in the following final minute of play.

The offense may be flashier than the defense, but the Knicks will need to trust their defense if they want any chance of winning.

In fact, they will have to rely heavily on their defense as it was one of their strongest qualities this season. The Knicks are at the top of the pack when it comes to certain defensive stats. For one, they lead the NBA in opponent points per game; on average, their opponents have scored 104.7 compared to 112.3 for last season. Additionally, they ranked fourth in the NBA with a defensive rating of 107.8.

As for the Hawks, they have not faired as well. Their opponents have averaged 111.4 points per game (good for the middle of the pack), while their defensive rating is 112.1 (good for the bottom half of the pack). Despite this, they have a great center in Clint Capela who will be going up against Nerlens Noel. Both of these men have been crucial to their teams’ defenses, with Noel having a slightly higher blocks-per-game average: 2.2 to 2.0.

Knicks’ Home-Court Advantage

By securing the fourth seed, the Knicks guaranteed themselves a home-court advantage in this round. Playing at home is always a great experience for a team, but this time it’s different. A perfect storm has created what will be an amazing experience for both casual and die-hard Knicks fans.

First off, this is the Knicks’ first trip to the playoffs since the 2012-2013 season. In the eight years since then, the Knicks have waddled in mediocrity and have, at times, been the laughingstock of the NBA. After years of Draft Lotteries and futile hopes, Knicks fans finally have a team they can be proud to support.

It couldn’t come at a better time. With vaccination rates increasing and overall COVID-19 numbers decreasing, restrictions and guidelines are being eased. This means that when the Knicks play the Hawks in Game One at the Mecca, they’ll have 15,000 fans feeding them nothing but constant energy. In fact, it was announced that both Game One and Game Two sold out almost instantly. Even though the Hawks will have their own fans, their number will be closer to 9,500. This attendance at MSG will be the highest of all the first-round teams and will surely help propel the players to another level–especially after having been without so many people for so long. To top it off, the Knicks were 25-11 at home this year.

Conclusion and Prediction

To me, this will be the best match-up of the first round. Both teams finished on winning streaks and with the same overall record, are well-built, and are up for the challenge.

However, I think it will ultimately go to the Knicks. It won’t be easy, but I think they have a stronger, hungrier team that will be aided immensely by the myriad Knicks fans who have been waiting for this moment. Randle, Barrett, Quickley, Rose, and the others are ready to go. Coach Tom Thibodeau has proven himself with this team, transforming them in the blink of an eye. New Yorkers are ready to scream their lungs out.

The Knicks are here so the question is this: are you ready?

Knicks/Hawks Series Schedule

The first game of the series will begin tomorrow night at Madison Square Garden at 7 PM EST. TNT is televising the game nationally. After that, the series schedule goes as followed:

Game 2: May 26th at New York (7:30 PM EST, TNT)

Game 3: May 28th at Atlanta (7 PM EST, ESPN)

Game 4: May 30th at Atlanta (1 PM EST, ABC)

Game 5: June 2nd at New York (if necessary)

Game 6: June 4th at Atlanta (if necessary)

Game 7: June 6th at New York (if necessary)

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