The crowd was loud, the atmosphere was electric and the tension was high.
All of the stars were aligned for the New York Knicks, but they couldn’t deliver in front of their fans.
In Game 1 of the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs, the Atlanta Hawks beat the Knicks 107-105 in a heartbreaking, contested affair. Both teams battled all game, showing just how good this series will be. For the Hawks, Trae Young went off with 32 points in his first playoff game, proving especially crucial in the final frame. As for the Knicks, out of all players, Alec Burks led his team with 27 points–despite starting the game on the bench. Julius Randle, who has been nothing but fantastic for the Knicks this season, struggled immensely. He managed just 15 points, going 6-23 for a 26.1 FG%.
Opening Jitters for the Knicks…
After missing the playoffs for eight years, rust was expected. With the Knicks faithful loud and proud from the get-go, the Knicks looked a little unsure of themselves. They missed 12 of their first 14 shots as the Hawks went on an 8-0 run. However, once Clint Capela was taken out, RJ Barrett, Randle, and Derrick Rose took advantage by driving into the paint. Rose started the game on the bench with Elfrid Payton starting. It wasn’t a long shift for Payton though, who was taken out after four minutes.
Young, as expected, led the Hawks in scoring during this frame with six points. His efficiency was much to the chagrin of the Knicks fans, who soon started their own expletive-laden chants. Despite this, the Hawks managed to stretch their lead to 11 points at one point. The Knicks countered with some more rhythm in their shooting and were lucky to finish the first quarter only down by eight: 24-16.
…But the Bench Comes Through in the Second
It didn’t take long for the Knicks to get comfortable as they found their groove in the second quarter. Specifically, the bench brought the rest of the team to life. Rose featured heavily yet again, being the first Knick to reach double digits with 10 points. He finished the first half with almost 20 minutes of game time–the most on the team.
Burks and Immanuel Quickley both came to life as well. They finished with seven and eight points respectively, with Burks going a perfect 3-3. Quickley went 3-4, including 2-2 from behind the arc. Both of his three-pointers were massive; the first was from just inside the logo while the second brought the Knicks within one point. Shortly after that second shot, Obi Toppin unleashed a nasty dunk that only energized the MSG crowd even more. With a three-pointer of his own, he finished the quarter with five points.
The first half ended with the Hawks up 52-50. Of those 50 points for the Knicks, the bench scored 34 of them. If it wasn’t for six turnovers in that quarter alone, the Knicks could’ve had a greater lead. Nevertheless, the bench helped keep them in the game so that they were only down by two heading into the second half.
Knicks Open it Up Late in the Third
When play resumed after halftime, it was more of the same from both teams. This is expected to be a tight series and this quarter showed that. Aside from a late seven-point lead for the Knicks, the score remained within five for both teams.
In my series preview, I said it would be Randle vs. Young. With Randle struggling, however, Barrett stepped up to take his place as the youngest Knick to ever start a playoff game. After a mediocre first quarter, he came back to life in this frame. He had nine points, including an impressive two-possession sequence that included a huge corner three-pointer and a massive left-handed dunk on top of Bogdan Bogdanovic. On the other side of the court, Young had eight points during this frame. He used his great speed to drive into the paint and catch the Knicks off-guard.
While the quarter was mostly contested, the Knicks pulled away with a late 10-0 run. With three minutes left, a Rose corner three-pointer opened up this run to give the Knicks the lead. Even though Lou Williams was able to put out the fire as time expired, the Knicks still went into the fourth quarter ahead of the Hawks. They were up by two: 73-71.
Burks vs. Young in Crunch Time
Barrett vs. Young in the third quarter was no match for Burks vs. Young in the fourth quarter. With the game on the line, both of these players came out strong. Burks and Young scored 18 and 13 points, respectively, leading both of their teams. Burks went 5-8, including 2-3 from behind the arc. The Knicks recognized his hot hands and consistently gave him the ball. As good as he was, however, he needed help from his teammates. Randle was ice-cold yet again, managing just four points while going 1-5. Quickley, who had a great game for his first-ever playoff game, went 1-3.
Young, on the other hand, received some help from his teammates. He went 2-3 and 9-9 with his free throws–something he excelled at during the regular season. In fact, it was a foul call that might’ve changed the whole narrative of the game. Barrett was called for a foul on Young with the game tied at 103. It was reviewed and ultimately remained unchanged. Both free throws made it in and the Hawks went up 105-103.
Rose hit a clutch jump shot to tie it up again with just 9.8 seconds left. Hoping to go into overtime, Tom Thibodeau went with Frank Ntilikina to defend Young. Ntilikina had been subbed in earlier for the same reason, but that time it didn’t work. Unfortunately, it failed to work yet again. Young responded with a jump shot of his own to seal the game with just 0.7 seconds remaining. The Knicks couldn’t respond.
It was a tough night for the Knicks, but it wasn’t completely terrible. They fought the whole game, keeping it close with the Hawks after shaking off their playoff nerves. Even though their stars were underwhelming, their bench came through and carried the team. If the Knicks want any chance of winning this series, then Randle needs to wake up. He has been the brightest star for the Knicks this season and he will have to be that star yet again. A hot-handed Randle and a hot-handed bench could be what it takes for the Knicks to win this series.
The Knicks will have one more game at home before going to Atlanta. Game 2 of the series is Wednesday, May 26th at 7:30 p.m. While it’s disappointing that we have to wait that long, it will be worth the wait. If tonight was an indicator of the rest of the series, we are definitely in for a treat.