In an unexpected turn of events, the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks faced each other in what would be the last game of the 2020 season due to the start of the global pandemic.
Neither team was invited to the NBA bubble restart, and didn’t know when they’d see the court again. The Hawks finished 14th in the Eastern Conference with a 20-47 record, and the Knicks finished 12th with a 21-45 record.
Fast forward to this season, and both teams will be facing each other again - but this time only one team’s season will be ending.
In two cities where music and culture run deep, it was only right the Basketball Gods would bless Atlanta and New York with good teams to finish the trifecta.
Both the Hawks and Knicks found themselves in a rebuilding phase for years (the Knicks taking quite longer) and are now in the playoffs seeking to win a championship. Both teams are similar in many ways, which should make for a perfect first-round storyline.
The Hawks haven’t sniffed the playoffs in four years, and have done a lot of work to get to this point. Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, and De’Andre Hunter are the young stars of the Hawks, while adding other young players through free agency such as Clint Capela and Bogdan Bogdanovic.
The Knicks haven’t made the playoffs since 2013 until now, and have seen their fair share of players come and go during that time. From failing to keep their star players, to not being able to sign any in free agency, the Knicks became a franchise not many wanted to come play for, and were becoming the laughing stock of the league.
Over the past two seasons, the Knicks have been able to sign Julius Randle, Nerlens Noel, Alec Burks, Taj Gibson, and Derrick Rose. They’ve also drafted well recently, with RJ Barrett, Obi Toppin, and Immanuel Quickley playing meaningful minutes and making an impact.
There will be a sprinkle of veteran playoff experience in this series, with Rose and Gibson on the Knicks, and Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari on the Hawks.
The superstar battle in this series will be between Young and Randle, two young players that are not considered in the “cream of the crop” of the NBA, but have been making a name for themselves this season leading their teams to the postseason.
This will be the first time that Young will be able to show off his skills on the big stage in the NBA. The narrative surrounding him since coming into the league was that he was a stat-sheet stuffer, he’s too small and that his game doesn’t translate to wins. He’s definitely proved them wrong this season, taking less shots, getting his teammates more involved, and improving on defense, which has helped lead the Hawks to the fifth seed in the East. The next step is here, and how he performs in the playoffs will greatly be judged just like his previous two seasons in the league.
On the other side, Randle is heading to his first postseason as well. He's been one of the biggest surprises in the NBA this season, leading the Knicks in scoring, assists, and usage. There's no doubt that he’ll be considered for Most Improved Player as well, as this Knicks team goes as he goes.
This series does not offer a surefire top-10 player in the league like the other first round matchups. So how did these young teams make it so far with not as much star power, and such little experience?
Look no further than the head coaches.
Since Nate McMillan has taken over, the Hawks have been playing their best basketball since the 60-win Hawks team in 2015. Of course, having the offensive firepower that the Hawks are equipped with *should* translate to wins alone, but having a system that unlocks all of the weapons maximizes that firepower.
Since March 1st, the Hawks have been one of the best offenses in the NBA:
Offensive rating: 11th before 3/1, 8th after 3/1— Mike Conti (@MikeConti929) May 17, 2021
3pt FG: 19th before 3/1, 4th after 3/1*
Rebounds: No change
Turnovers: 16th before 3/1, 7th after 3/1
Plus-minus: 15th before 3/1, 8th after 3/1
*Bogdanovic also returned on 3/1 https://t.co/oUmybH5FOJ
The Knicks have also seen a drastic change due to their coach, Tom Thibodeau. Even though they don’t have as much offensive talent like the Hawks, since March 1st the Knicks are second in three-point FG% (Hawks were No. 4).
But it’s not the offense that has carried the Knicks through the season, it’s been the defense. Ranking at the top of the league in defensive rating this season, they’ve have shown the ability to keep players in front of them on the perimeter, and swat away anything that comes in the paint.
Dawg, Nerlens Noel’s entire season has looked like the Mutombo Geico commercial— Chris Herring (@Herring_NBA) May 16, 2021
“They do a good job defensively,” De’Andre Hunter said ahead of the matchup. “I think we put up a lot of points on them, but just watching them overall, they play really well defensively.”
“They’re the best defense in the league, so that’s pretty big,” John Collins said of the Knicks when speaking with media this week. “Just understanding what we need to do as an offense, execute and not turnover the ball.”
Both coaches have shown the ability to be regular season geniuses but were not able to get over the postseason hump in their previous stops. McMillan kept the Pacers afloat in the Eastern Conference the past three seasons, but have also been put out the first round each time. Thibodeau’s Bulls were always one of two top teams in the East, but his team only reached the Conference Finals once.
Who’s to blame for a chunk of postseason shortcomings for both coaches? The Miami Heat and LeBron James (in both Miami and with the Cleveland Cavaliers).
“I know the situation that happened in Indiana,” Nate McMillan said. “Miami was playing really good basketball. We had some major injuries during that time, and they took care of business. So, that’s in the past.”
This matchup is as even as it can get, though some don’t see it that way. For the Knicks, they have a reason to feel confident against the Hawks. They swept the regular season series 3-0, and Randle had his way in every matchup.
Julius Randle has OWNED the Hawks this season:— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) May 16, 2021
37.3 PPG (Most vs any opponent)
132 Offensive Rating (Most vs any opponent)
125 Minutes Played (Most vs any opponent)
58.1% FG#NewYorkForever pic.twitter.com/d9Rte86dU6
The Hawks have a rebuttal, because the first two games were coached under then-head coach Lloyd Pierce. In the first matchup, the Hawks held a 15-point lead at one point, and the Knicks rallied to win the game.
In the second matchup, it was a back and forth contest until the fourth quarter where Young and Collins did not make a field goal.
In the last and final matchup, the Hawks had complete control of the game until Young went down with an ankle injury. The Hawks still managed to force overtime without their best player, but fell short at the end.
Though the Hawks were swept, they showed in each game that they could keep the game close and compete with the Knicks. Unfortunately, almost isn’t good enough for the national media, just by looking at these predictions alone:
“I definitely feel like this would give us a big, big swing of momentum in the national media,” Collins said. “I feel like everybody in this organization has been fighting for us to get more national attention. We fought to get to this position and earn an opportunity. There’s not a bigger stage in the first round, arguably.”
The Hawks have been used to not getting any national media, even with their big second half turnaround. They had very few ESPN or TNT games this season, which has been a trend for them the past few seasons. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how the Hawks players will perform under the bright lights, especially having to play at least two games at the ‘Mecca’ of basketball.
“Playing in the Garden, that’s what every kid that plays basketball wants to do,” added Hunter. “So being able to go there for the playoffs, just to feel that atmosphere, it’ll be great.”
Neither team knows what is takes to win on the big stage, so they’ll both be figuring things out as the series progresses. This is what should make this matchup even more intriguing, and why it’s a series that the NBA needs.
If you want to see two underdog teams with not many household names, little playoff experience, playing in two of the biggest cities, for a chance to make it to the semi-finals? Look no further than this first round matchup. Game 1 should tell us a lot about how this series could potentially play out.
“We’re going to come out looking to set the tone, whatever the game plan is,” Hunter said. “It’s going to be a battle, whether we win or lose, it’s definitely going to be a battle. But looking to come out on top for sure.”