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Beyond the season series: Why New York’s regular season sweep may mislead

The Knicks won the season series 3-0 but there’s a lot more to it than the final result...

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Atlanta Hawks v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

After 72 grueling games, the 2020-21 regular season is in the books. The Atlanta Hawks — despite all of their injuries — finished the season with a 41-31 record, securing themselves the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference, just shy of homecourt advantage by way of a tiebreaker. The team in possession of said tiebreaker are the team the Hawks will face-off in the first round: the New York Knicks.

Everyone is (or should) be in general agreement that this series was the best outcome for the Hawks in the first round, avoiding the Milwaukee Bucks in the 3-6 matchup and the Miami Heat in a 4-5 matchup. The reasons for wanting to avoid the Bucks should be fairly obvious for both sides and the Hawks dodged a bullet by avoiding the vastly more experience Miami Heat, despite the fact the Hawks would have had homecourt advantage.

One of the knocks against the Hawks heading into the playoffs is their inexperience but the Knicks are just as inexperienced as the Hawks, whereas the Heat have vastly more experience and know-how in the playoffs, led by Jimmy Butler.

The Hawks-Knicks matchup is definitely the best spot for the Hawks in the first round and even without homecourt, the Hawks are marginally favored by some betting outlets.

There’s obvious excitement around the league with regards the Knicks returning to the playoffs and as the 4-seed — and there should be. It’s one of the better stories of the season. However, there are those who will overlook the Hawks when they look at the season series, — which the Knicks won 3-0 — but that doesn’t tell the full story. Context is key, and with that said, there’s enough in these three games to look at some of nuances ahead of this series.

All three of these games were high-scoring affairs, with the Knicks averaging 124 points on 51.7% from the field, 47.8% from three on 30 attempts and 25 free throw attempts per game against the Hawks.

Obviously a small sample size in comparison to the 72 game regular season but this a fairly decent departure from their season averages of 107 points per game (26th in the league) on 45.6% from the field, 39% from three (tied for 2nd in the NBA) on 30 attempts and 20 free throw attempts.

“They’re a really good team,” said Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan of New York on Tuesday. “They’re a good team, number one in defense. Offensively they’ve had a few guys who’ve had good nights against us.”

The Knicks being number one in points allowed per game was a point hit on often but it’s been the Hawks’ defense of the Knicks, however, that has also stuck out like a sore thumb for McMillan.

“It is defense,” said McMillan of what stood out from the Hawks’ season series. “Defensively we gave up 124 points, an average of 124 points to New York in our three games we played them. They average 107 points in the regular season and we gave up 124 points to them. Randle had big nights averaging 37 points against us. Barrett averages 21, Quickley 17. A number of those guys were playing well against us. Field goal percentage, they were scoring pretty much at will, shooting 51 from the floor, 47 from the three-point line. We really did not do a good job defending this team this season. Offensively, we were able to score — we averaged 115 points against them — we need to do a better job taking care of the ball. We know that they are the number one defense, they are physical on the defensive end of the floor. We’re going to have to be able to play thought that and execute against a tough physical defense.”

The Knicks are not the world’s greatest offensive side, yet against the Hawks they have excelled, and then some.

Hunter was obviously a key absentee from the season series, and for the Hawks in general defensively. Hunter often had the task of checking the opponent’s best offensive player (so long as that player wasn’t seven foot tall) and was missed defensively while recovering from injury. The on/off numbers would also agree, with the Hawks’ defensive rating with Hunter on the floor a team-best (of those who played real and significant minutes) 105.9. With Hunter off of the floor, the Hawks’ defensive rating was 113, just 0.2 off of a team-worst off of the court just behind Capela.

“I feel like our defense changes a little bit, we were able to switch a little more on that end,” said John Collins of De’Andre Hunter following the Hawks’ victory over the Houston Rockets in the regular season finale, where Hunter played 24 minutes .

“Having ‘Dre just changes our whole dynamic defensively as well as offensively,” added Collins of Hunter.

However, McMillan is unsure if Hunter will be restriction-free during the first round.

“I think it’s still a work in progress,” said McMillan of Hunter’s minutes restrictions. “I’m assuming that he will have an increase in minutes but I don’t know if it will get to the point where there’s no restrictions.”

Considering Hunter played 24 minutes and was pain-free, even a small increase takes to him to 30 minutes, which is still a hugely significant amount of time in this spot.

Going back to the series, people will look very much into the 3-0 season series and make their judgement based on that, but without context you’re going to mislead yourself.

Let’s call a stone a stone: this is a Hawks-related site. Everyone reading at this stage knows what the Hawks are about here, their strengths, weaknesses etc. At Peachtree Hoops, we spend a lot of time covering this team in-depth, so if you’ve been following along, you know what the Hawks are about, their hierarchy offensively and so on.

What people won’t be as familiar will be the Knicks themselves, so it’s important to look at things from their perspective too.

Today, we’re going to look at the film of the Knicks from the Hawks series for the most part, identify what lines up from the season series, what is likely to carry over to the postseason, what isn’t likely and so on.

Let’s start with the most dangerous factor for the Knicks on the offensive end: Julius Randle.

In the season-series, Randle averaged 37 points per game on 58% shooting from the field, 50% from three on over eight attempts per game to go along with 81% from the line on 11 attempts per game. Add to that 12 rebounds per game, 6.7 assists and 4.7 turnovers per game.

Randle, in short, completely dominated the Hawks in the season series and is going to be the Knicks’ leader in the postseason, but when you look at the film from the regular season and look behind those numbers and those insane percentages, he might have trouble replicating this in the postseason.

When you look at the shots Randle made, he made a lot of difficult shots, shots that won’t always fall (but did so in the season series).

As the shotclock nears its end, Bogdan Bogdanovic is the one who has to switch onto Randle near the perimeter. Bogdanovic is able to help Randle kill his dribble in the ‘long-two’ range and stands his ground vertically. Randle is forced to lean back as he takes the contested long two and hits nothing but net:

In the two games in New York, Randle ignited from outside and hits this contested three despite the challenge of Collins:

In the corner, this time, Randle receives the ball and despite the contest of the larger Clint Capela, Randle is still able to hit the corner three:

With the shotclock ticking under five seconds, Randle receives the ball way behind the three-point line but pulls up to make a very deep three-pointer at a very important part of the game:

On the Knicks inbounds with 4.2 seconds on the shotclock, Randle receives the ball at the baseline, faced by Kevin Huerter. As Cam Reddish comes over to help, Randle takes a slight step back towards the baseline, where he hits the rainbow shot over Huerter at the end of the clock:

In transition, the Hawks manage to stop Nerlens Noel but as Noel hands off to Randle, Bogdanovic has to switch onto him in the corner as Randle almost casually collects the ball, faces up in the corner, falling right, and just drains the three over Bogdanovic:

Guarded by Capela on the move, Randle gets to the right block and even after Collins switches late-on on the fadeaway, Randle still drains the shot:

A lot of difficult shots here, some shots at the end of clock — Randle hit these with consistency. It’s not to say Randle won’t hit these in the playoffs but perhaps not as many? The volume of tougher shots Randle hit against the Hawks was very high.

Randle hit a lot of tough shots, he also hit a lot of jumpshots, including quite a number of long-twos, some of these were a little easy for him to walk into.

With Capela guarding Randle and not willing to meet Randle on the perimeter, Randle is allowed to casually walk into a long two-pointer:

Faced up against Collins, Randle pulls up into the long jumpshot and the contest from Collins just isn’t really effective and Randle drains the shot:

Again, as Randle drives to his right and gets just past the free throw line extended, Collins’ contest just isn’t able to reach Randle’s jumpshot effectively:

On the step-back, Randle is able to shed Collins and his contest is not close enough to make Randle sweat on the jumpshot:

This success obviously extended to behind the three-point line and while Randle shot 41% from three on 5.5 attempts per game, he went berserk against the Hawks.

Threes like this where Randle just walks into it can’t be allowed to happen:

Onyeka Okongwu being matched up against Randle at any time would be bad, both inside and outside as Okongwu shows little urgency to contest this three:

On the screen-and-fade, Collins and Huerter get their switches a little mixed up, leaving Randle to hit an open three:

Generally speaking, you’d probably want Randle taking threes instead of barreling into the paint, and if he does take and make those threes, you might just have to live with it but as long as they’re not completely wide open and somewhat contested like this three here:

In the Hawks’ first matchup against the Knicks, Randle shot 0-of-5 before shooting 7-of-13 in the second game before finishing with a 6-of-8 performance from behind the arc.

Randle’s 50% three-point shooting against the Hawks comes despite that 0-of-5 opening, boosted by two of Randle’s five three-point shooting nights all season long — his seven threes made was a season-high at time (before tying it in March), as well as his 44 points that night. His six threes marked his third best shooting performance from the outside. He really did just ignite in these two games.

While Randle has shown vast improvements shooting the three-pointer, these are anomalies, the pinnacle from three in Randle’s super season. Is he likely to replicate these (insane) types of numbers in the postseason? I’d lean towards no. That’s not to say Randle’s shooting won’t translate, but is he shooting a combined 13-of-21 on threes in two games?

Whether or not Randle continues to hit those tough shots, those long twos and those three-pointers remains to be seen, but what is most likely to translate is Randle’s work inside, where he feasted.

One-on-one versus Collins, Randle is able to backdown Collins and rise for the turnaround jump-hook inside:

Rinse and repeat:

On the drive and spin, Randle is able to get deep position inside and hits a tough shot over both Capela and Collins:

When Randle gets downhill, there are problems. From the three-point line, Randle takes it to Capela and with no help to cover up the difficult angle for Capela, Randle is able to score at the rim:

On the pick-and-roll, this time there is more help for Capela once Randle gets a head of steam but even Collins is no match as Randle overpowers him and finishes at the rim:

With his combination of strength, size and even speed, Randle is a very tough prospect to stop inside/with a head of steam. Here, Collins probably should have been called for the foul here — which would have cost them game in regulation — as Randle puts the Knicks up by three points with 8.4 seconds left on the drive:

From here, we know Bogdanovic hits a clutch three to send it to overtime but the game probably should’ve been ended there and then if Collins is called for a foul and the three-point play.

And should Randle have himself a switch on the non-Capela/Collins Hawks, there are problems:

The matchup numbers from both Collins and Capela defending Randle aren’t great.

Against Collins, Randle shot 61.9% from the field and and 62.5% from three and against Capela — in 4 minutes less of possession time defended than Collins — Randle shot 57% from the field.

Solomon Hill defended Randle for a smaller sample compared to Collins and Capela, where Randle shot 50% (Hill had some decent defensive possessions on Randle but Hill’s activity in regards the roster come playoff time will be interesting to monitor).

So, Randle is a real handful...what can the Hawks realistically do?

Well, hope for regression to the mean when it comes to Randle’s insane three-point shooting for a start — that immediately automatically help the Hawks.

Collins has really struggled in the Randle matchup and the Hawks might be better off with Capela guarding him with his size and length. The only issue with this is if Randle pulls Capela out of the lane, it opens up avenues at the rim for the Knicks’ guards for drives and layups.

However, speaking on Tuesday, McMillan gave an indication — when asked about John Collins’ next steps — of the defensive tasks Collins will be asked of.

“Defensively, guarding the perimeter,” said McMillan during an answer about Collins’ next step in development. “He’s going to be on Randle, he’s going to be on these some of these wings, some of these guards being able to make that adjustment and guard. As we say ‘KYP’ — ‘Know Your Personnel’ — making that adjustment out on the floor. If he’s able to do that — and he has been he’s been able to do that but he needs to continue to show growth in that area — it will allow us to do a number of things.”

Obviously Collins won’t be exclusively guarding Randle but an interesting early indication of what McMillan will expect of Collins defensively.

If the Hawks want to bait Randle into making outside shots and jumpshots as opposed to barreling into the lane, perhaps leaving Collins to do that may be a better option and hope for that outcome? Randle getting downhill obviously creates issues when it comes to fouls and free throws, of which Randle drew a lot of and Collins/Capela running into foul trouble would be a very bad outcome in any game.

“He scored everywhere, in every way possible,” said McMillan of Randle. “He shot the ball from the three-point line, he scored in the post, he got to the free throw line. He had hot nights against us, we saw that on film. We saw some things that we want to change defensively in guarding Randle as well as guarding the Knicks players. He pretty much had his way in the games he played this year.”

With the force of nature Randle has been against the Hawks this season, he may not average 37 points per game but he’s still going to be difficult to contain but the key, as we’ve looked at, is not allowing Randle to get so casually to his spots.

“He’s really good,” said Clint Capela of the Knicks star forward. “Stopping him may be a tough word but just make it hard for him. Just trying to speed him up, be aggressive on him defensively and not let him get comfortable with the ball, not just let him get to his move.”

“Obviously the guy is having a great year, a hell of a year,” added Collins. “Making a lot of tough shots, has obviously worked on his game a ton. It’s a matter of understanding for us, what spaces or spots he’s been shooting the ball well in, what we need to do as a team to force him to take tougher shots than he’s taking now. Really just continue to make a tough game-plan for him all night and not give him anything easy, as routine as that sounds. He’s making a lot of tough shots right now so it’s on us to make them tougher. If he continues to makes it, you tip your hat to him but we’re not going to let up in any way and attack him. He’s the head of the snake for them.”

McMillan, however, isn’t so sure that stopping Randle necessarily stops the Knicks.

“I don’t think it’s just stop Randle,” said McMillan when asked if it’s a case of ‘stop Randle to stop the Knicks’. “They all have played well against us. Of course, Randle has been the main guy and he’s certainly the difference in what they are doing this season. They have guys like Rose who has played well and played well against us. Quickley, Barrett, Bullock, all of those guys have played well against us. It’s not just one guy. Certainly, we have to focus on our coverages against him (Randle) but it’s stopping the Knicks. If you guys want to look at ‘if you stop Randle, you stop the Knicks,’ we don’t really look at it that way.”

Despite the advantage Randle is set to have, I think it’s reasonable to expect that Randle won’t average 37 points per game on 58% shooting from the field and 50% from three on eight attempts. Even if he can, other Knicks will have to step up and contribute offensively because the Hawks narrowly lost those games even with those insane outputs from Randle.

Who are these likely to be and what issues can they pose to the Hawks?

RJ Barrett was the Knicks’ second leading scorer, scoring 17.6 points per game across the regular season. Against the Hawks, Barrett averaged 21 points on 47% shooting from the field and 37.5% from three on over five attempts.

Some Hawks fans may rule out Barrett as a threat but that would be unwise. Barrett is much improved this season and he’s the second-leading scorer on a team that secured home court advantage for a reason.

Barrett is capable offensively, diverse — able to score in a number of different ways, which makes it tough to negate his impact.

Barrett is more than capable of making something happen for himself offensively, such as on this possession as he comes off of the screen, gets into the paint and hits the tear-drop with his weak hand:

On the drive from Randle, the Knicks All-Star is forced to pass out to Barrett on the perimeter, who sheds Kevin Huerter and hits the jumpshot as the clock expires:

Off of a Knicks miss, the ball is tipped out towards the corner where Barrett collects the ball before dribbling to his right, stepping back and hitting the mid-range jumpshot as De’Andre Hunter contests:

Working off of the dribble himself this time, Barrett sizes up Gallinari before stepping back and draining the jumper on Gallinari:

After a Hawks turnover, the ball falls to Barrett after the play is broken up by Noel. Barrett takes the ball in transition before easily spinning away from Trae Young and Capela’s best efforts to prevent Barrett from scoring are for nought as Barrett scores, plus the foul:

After receiving the pass from Randle in the corner, Barrett initially sizes up Bogdanovic before taking Bogdanovic off of the dribble and attacking the rim, finishing with the emphatic dunk:

Barrett is comfortable to make plays off of the dribble and the Hawks need to be ready for it, here, Barrett gets to his spot off of the dribble, rising into the jumpshot:

You’ve seen a few instances of Barrett showing off of the three-point and getting inside, Barrett’s success beyond the arc opens opportunities to do that.

Here, Barrett is deployed off of the ball as Derrick Rose comes off of the double-drag screen before whizzing the ball to Barrett in the corner, hitting the three:

With Randle commanding as much as attention as he does, it’ll be to no surprise there will be those elsewhere who will benefit from Randle’s passing, as Barrett does here for the three-pointer:

Barrett can be active off-ball too, as he cuts behind Hunter for the easy basket at the rim:

On the out of bounds play, Barrett’s movement catches the Hawks napping as he makes the cut to basket, receives the ball and easily scores at the rim:

If you’re the Hawks, if you want to limit Randle and this, by extension, allows Barrett to go off I think the Hawks would live with that but no one should be surprised if Barrett is a factor behind the Knicks’ potential victories — he was certainly a huge reason why the Knicks won their only trip to Atlanta this season with those 26 points.

However, the Hawks may have an ace to show in this matchup with Barrett.

You can see in some of those clips that Kevin Huerter had some issues defending Barrett, and of all the Hawks’ wings Huerter has easily spent the longest amount of time defending Barrett: 13 minutes of matchup minutes (per with Barrett shooting 45% against Huerter.

In just the one game played, De’Andre Hunter spent five minutes of matchup time guarding Barrett, where Barrett shot 1-of-6 from the field and 1-of-4 when matched up with Hunter.

Not based on those numbers but physically and in terms of importance, Hunter would seem to be the ideal player to guard Barrett, as Julius Randle is probably a little too much for Hunter to handle physically? Between Barrett — and I’m sure some of the Knicks’ guards at times — De’Andre Hunter is going to be busy defensively in this series, and that might be more important than anything he does offensively in this series.

But make no mistake about it: RJ Barrett’s performances — good or bad — will be a key factor in this series.

One more offensive factor for the Knicks in terms of personnel are their guard: Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley.

Let’s start with Derrick Rose, who played three games against the Hawks (one with the Pistons, two with the Knicks). One eight point showing followed by a 20 point outing for Rose against the Hawks with the Knicks on an average of 52% shooting from the field.

Rose has come off of the bench for the Knicks, which is relevant because the Knicks’ bench unit topped the Hawks’ bench...quite considerably. Rose was a large part of that.

Here, Rose gets downhill in transition and splits both Solomon Hill but more Danilo Gallinari, who is left for dead as Rose at the rim:

Again, Rose exploits Gallinari in the second unit as he gets to the rim before muscling Gallinari out of the way underneath the rim for the layup:

Trae Young didn’t cover himself in glory either on that defensive possession, nor does he do so on this possession either as Rose easily spins by Young and the resistance offered Gallinari at the rim is beaten as Rose clutches his way to a layup at the rim:

Coming off of the screen, Rose takes advantage of Onyeka Okongwu as he gets downhill and clears Okongwu to score at the rim:

‘He’s been playing good basketball for a couple of years now,” said McMillan of Rose. “He is certainly playing well this season for New York. He’s basically the guard that is finishing for them. He’s coming off of the bench but he plays a big part in that second unit and how they attack you. He’s playing really good basketball, he can still score, create opportunities for himself as well as for his teammates. I think both he and Quickley have been really good in the backcourt, they’ve certainly played well against us. He’s a guy you have to prepare for.”

Rose is obviously a player most are familiar with but not so much when it comes to Quickley, who came off of the bench to great impact in the season series. In saying that, against the Hawks, Quickley averaged 17 points per game on 51% shooting from the field and 58.8% from three on 5.7 attempts per game — a hair more than his regular season averages of 11 points per game on 39% shooting from the field and 38.9% from three.

Quickley’s damage against the Hawks mostly came from outside the arc. In fact, Quickley only had five two-point makes in the three games this season. 58.8% shooting on three-pointers doesn’t seem sustainable in a playoff series but the Hawks still need to do a better job guarding Quickley in general.

Some of these threes you can live with Quickley making, others not so much.

Falling into the ‘not so much’ category, includes this as the Hawks’ defense is broken down by Kevin Knox, before Knox kicks the ball out to Quickley for the three-pointer:

For this three-pointer, Quickley comes off of the Randle screen which takes Huerter out of the equation, giving Quickley the green light to launch into a three:

This kind of three is what you would worry about if Randle is being guarded by Capela, who doesn’t always want to step up on high screens at the three-point line which may allow three-pointers like this, especially with Quickley being able to operate off of the dribble and a 38% three-point shooter on the season.

Again, the Knicks give Quickley some bodies/screens to work with and Quickley lets it fly in the fourth quarter:

Quickley is more than capable of bringing the ball down the floor and letting it fly, as he does on this possession:

Quickley is unafraid to shoot from range either, and he hit a number of deep three-pointers against the Hawks, such as this three as Randle gets inside before kicking it out to Quickley, who hits the deep three:

Again, coming off of the Randle screen, the Hawks run a bit of zone and Young’s contest on Quickley’s three isn’t enough to prevent another make from Quickley:

Coming off of the bench, Quickley is going to feature against the Hawks’ second unit, who have issues defensively at the backup guard spots, like Lou Williams. Outside the arc, Quickley will be a threat but if he’s able to get going inside of it, that’s going to be a problem:

Both Rose and Quickley were huge factors in winning the bench battle, which is going to be a big factor heading into this series. In February’s contest, the Hawks bench combined for a plus/minus of -27. In April’s overtime loss, this number was -45, while the Knicks’ registered a +45, with Rose +14 and Quickley +29 in 30 minutes of action apiece.

“They do a good job defensively,” said Hunter of what stood out from the Knicks season series. “We put up a lot of points on them but just watching them overall, they play really well defensively. They have a great bench, they have guys who come off the bench who can score. In most games, especially in close games, the bench is usually the determining factor. That’s usually where they got us, was their bench.”

With Brandon Goodwin now out for the season and Kris Dunn unlikely to feature, there’s a lot of pressure for the Hawks’ guards coming off of the bench to try and slow down Rose and Quickley, more so Rose’s work near the rim. Quickley’s three-point shooting, in theory, should regress but this is arguably New York’s biggest advantage in this series.

With the Hawks’ struggles to score with their second unit — and defend — Quickley may have a big role to play in this series coming off of the bench. Obviously bench minutes will be reduced for the Hawks in the playoffs but eventually they have to play, and Quickley can ignite. However, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect Quickley to shoot 58% from three in a series.

It goes back to the Knicks’ three-point shooting as a whole: it isn’t something I think is sustainable in a playoff series.

There are also other factors worth considering when weighing up the season series. One being that only one of these games was played in Atlanta, that does matter in a 3-0 sweep.

The Hawks were very much in command of the third matchup (in April) as the third quarter ended before Trae Young suffered his ankle injury. Not to say that the Hawks would have certainly won, but Young’s absence on the game was a huge swinging factor in the Knicks coming back and winning in overtime.

Two of these games against the Knicks came under a different head coach and this plays a factor too. Not a definitive factor but it’s one that can’t be overlooked for the sake of overlooking.

Many of the Knicks (including all of the ones we’ve run through here today) averaged higher outputs against the Hawks — in some cases, considerably higher — than their average season total and did so on vastly higher percentages. These percentages, the Knicks’ percentages as a whole, should regress in a playoff series — 47.8% shooting from three isn’t likely to hold in the series.

“Clean slate,” said Collins of the Knicks’ 3-0 season sweep. “Obviously it’s in my mind. It happened. I don’t not remember it. For me, I don’t give a damn about any of that. I’m coming to play. I feel like it’s a new season. It is what it is. When you get on that court, it’s a different game, different mentality.”

Looking, briefly, at the Hawks side of the season series heading into the playoffs, there’d be optimism for improvement. Young averaged 24.7 points on 36% shooting from the field and 21% from three — all markedly below his season averages. Bogdan Bogdanovic also averaged numbers far below his season averages, and the likes of Danilo Gallinari and De’Andre Hunter only featured in one game in the season series.

None of this is to say the Hawks going to be the outright winners but it’s to say that this series is going to be very close and that the regular season wasn’t a total true reflection of how this could end up going, with percentages/numbers in both directions a little out of proportion.

There are times where the season series does provide a good indicator as to who is likely to edge the series. The Brooklyn Nets swept the Miami Heat in a 4-game season series in 2014, but did anyone believe for a second the Heat wouldn’t top the Nets when they met in the playoffs? The Heat won in five games.

The indicators provided from this year’s Hawks-Knicks that you can be absolutely sure of: Julius Randle is an extremely tough cover for this Hawks team, RJ Barrett’s performances aren’t a fluke, Derrick Rose and the Knicks’ bench does create a genuine problem for the Hawks.

The things unlikely to carry forward from the season series? Randle averaging 37 points per game on 58% shooting from the field and 50% shooting from three (barring a superhuman effort), the Knicks’ 48% shooting from three-point range and Immanuel Quickley’s 58% shooting from behind the arc to name a few.

What is an absolute certainty, however, is the opportunity awaiting the Hawks here, starting on Sunday. The chance to perform at the highest level of professional basketball on the biggest stage in New York.

“We’ve got one of the biggest stages to perform on in the playoffs in the first round,” said John Collins of playing the Knicks in the first round.

“This is an opportunity, this is what you play for,” added McMillan. “As I’ve said to our team, this is an opportunity for you to play against the best and show what you’re capable of doing. They’ve earned the right to be here. Now we see where we are now that we’re here.”

Both teams will be hungry to prove themselves on what will be unfamiliar ground, with a lot of players who haven’t been to the playoffs before, guided by coaches who have been.

ESPN released their analysts/experts predictions for the series, with many of them leaning towards the Knicks, 14-2 the tally in favor of the Knicks.

14-2? In a 4-5 matchup where both sides finished with the exact same record?

Glen obviously hits on some relevant points here, as did Nate McMillan when this was posed to him. His answer was very interesting, discussing how the NBA wants its larger market teams in the playoffs before relishing the challenge playing against one of those larger markets (which ended up with the NBA fining McMillan $25,000).

“I’ve talked about that to the team a lot,” said McMillan when asked about the national media’s favoring the Knicks in the series. “I think I’ve gone as far as saying the league wants this, they need this. New York, this is a big market, it’s a big market for the league. New York has been out of the playoffs for a number of years. This is a team that our league they want to see — there’s a huge fanbase — they want to see New York in the playoffs. They want to see the Lakers in the playoffs, teams like that — Boston Celtics — they want to see these teams in the playoffs and I put New York in that category. The league wants to see it, everybody wants to see this, even to the fact that our game was moved to Sunday. They want to see this.

“So, yes, we’ve talked about that, we’ve talked about the advantages of this situation and there’s some things we’re going to have to face going into the game going in with everybody picking New York to win and a lot of folks wanting to see New York in the playoffs. It’s a battle, it’s a challenge. Just being New York, all of that comes with playing in New York. They’ve had a really good season. I think the NBA is excited about them being back in the playoffs.”

McMillan was fined $25,000 by the league for his comments, that were “detrimental public comments asserting bias by the NBA relating to the 2020-21 Playoffs,” per a release from the NBA.

ESPN aren’t the only outlet to heavily favor the Knicks.

At The Athletic, Joe Vardon, David Aldridge and Sam Amick have all favored the Knicks to progress, while Kevin O’Conner of The Ringer is also leaning towards the Knicks.

If you placed the exact same Knicks roster on a smaller market team and placed them in the same scenario — facing the Hawks as the 4-seed — I can guarantee you this choice is A LOT more split than this. But this is the reality of the situation.

All eyes are going to be on New York during this series, for the fact that it is New York and it’s their first postseason trip since 2013. In the eyes of many, if the Knicks win, that’s to be expected. If the Hawks win, it’s an upset.

The Hawks have the potential and the real possibility to upset many here, because as we looked at, the Knicks’ 3-0 season sweep isn’t entirely representative — it’s far closer than that and it’s going to be a very tight series, with huge stakes to play for nationally.

“I definitely feel like this would give a big, big swing of momentum in the national media,” said John Collins when asked about ESPN’s Knicks-heavy series prediction. “I feel like everybody in this organization is fighting for us to get more national attention. We’ve fought to get to this position to earn an opportunity ... we’ve got to take advantage of that.”

“New York is more like an international city,” added Bogdan Bogdanovic of the national media outlook of the series. “I like to come off of that position, an underdog position.”

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say the Hawks have more talent here on the Knicks as a whole. They have more players who can step up and go-off, even if Young struggles/the Knicks shadow him. If those players struggle themselves, that will be the Knicks’ hope.

For the Knicks, they needed season-highs and insane shooting percentages to put away the Hawks in the regular season, and that’s the optimism for the Hawks going forward.

After years of waiting to return to the postseason, the Knicks are back. The Hawks are back. And both teams are exactly where they wanted to be ahead of this first round — this is the matchup they both wanted.

Game 1 takes place at 7 pm ET on Sunday. There’s been a lot of talk, but all of that will soon be pushed to the side.

Atlanta Hawks playoff basketball is back.