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Mailbag: Questions ahead of Hawks-Knicks series

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NBA: Atlanta Hawks at New York Knicks Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

With the Atlanta Hawks first round series with the New York Knicks rapidly approaching we opened up the mailbag to take your questions. And you did not disappoint.

With this being this version of the Hawks first venture into a playoff environment and being matched up with a Knicks roster getting their first shared postseason experience it’s challenging to know what to expect. But let’s dig in to your questions.

As to sort out a possible answer to this question we have to sort of work through some of the fundamental elements of the way each team plays. On defense, New York wants to keep you out of the middle and force you to work close to the sideline and baseline. When opponents can manage to get into the middle it makes the Knicks help defense reads more challenging. So how can Atlanta successfully attack the middle of the floor?

That’s going to start with the high pick and roll. But New York will throw a ton at Trae Young if there isn’t something ahead of the ball screen initiation. So look for the Hawks to use some of their early clock actions that provide pitch-back and DHO opportunities to allow Young to center the ball before getting into the traditional pick and roll.

An example:

I expect they will use a lot of “floppy” action to get Bogdan Bogdanovic working from, preferably, the left side of the floor toward the middle as long as they are chasing him around screens.

It might look a bit like this:

When the match up is favorable I expect to see Atlanta get De’Andre Hunter opportunities to work on ball by way of their “stack” series which usually leads to “slot” pick-and-roll.

An example here:

On can see how each of these actions leads to work in the middle of the floor.

I think we will see Danilo Gallinari work in post opportunities and John Collins get post touches in after timeout (ATO) situations. But the thing I will be watching most closely in game one is what Atlanta might be able to do to attack in the middle.

The Knicks do so many different things to help Julius Randle get the where he likes to operate that a significant amount of preparation will have to go into this part of the game plan.

Randle prefers the right block when he is defended by a like-sized player, for example John Collins. He prefers the left block when he has a smaller players on him, as often seen after New York uses a ball screen to force a switch.

He likes to attack via the “the nail” when the opposing team puts a traditional center in him. The will use ball screen action to free up the space at the free throw line for Randle.

Here is an example:

As touched on in the prior question, it’s harder to help on defense when the ball is in the middle as it creates ambiguity regarding strong-side and weak-side designation.

All of the teams that you mentioned are physical at the point of ball screens. And that’s what Atlanta will need to demonstrate as to exert some control.

Nate McMillan is a bit famous for wanting to avoid positional cross-matches. Since Randle is most effective on the right side of the floor, it’s going to be interesting to see if he demonstrates some flexibility as to try to entice the Knicks and Randle to another area.

Atlanta tinkered with cross-matching in the final games of the regular season leading me to believe it’s on the table.

As for what the Knicks can throw at Young, nothing that he hasn’t seen. Tom Thibodeau is pretty traditional from a scheme standpoint even if he has become a bit more flexible with his current team. But the Knicks will be either dropping their big man or showing the big man at the level of the screen on almost every possession apart from ATOs and end of quarter situations. Young has seen plenty of both of those.

These questions gets at one of the most interesting decisions McMillan is facing. How much does he deploy Hunter on Randle? And how much will Hunter be needed as to match up with Derrick Rose?

Hunter only played five games after the coaching change. Prior to that he was handled as sort of a de facto point guard defender.

Atlanta doesn’t have a ton of other options for Rose. But in the two-game ‘series’ versus the Washington Wizards late in the season we saw a lot of Bogdanovic and Tony Snell defending Russell Westbrook. That could suggest McMillan was ramping up those two to prepare to take on an assignment like Rose.

As effective as Rose is, Randle is the priority. So, I think Hunter will see a majority of his time allocated to him, at least as the series gets started.

Another really tough question.

Normally you would expect to see about a nine-man rotation to start a first-round series with the coaching staff narrowing that down as the series goes deeper.

So, let’s start with Trae Young, Bogdanovic, Hunter, Collins and Clint Capela as the presumed starting five.

Kevin Huerter, Gallinari, Snell and Onyeka Okongwu get you to nine before you even look at Lou Williams. I presume Okongwu plays about four minutes in the first half and won’t be used in the second half apart from the Hawks encountering foul trouble with one of their big men.

I, for one, will shocked if Williams doesn’t play. And I expect Solomon Hill to play a bit on the second unit as to match up with Randle for a handful of minutes. He may even close tight games over Collins.

So, to me, there are 11 viable players. Which is a borderline crazy number for the playoffs.

But, the Hawks probably rely on zone defense for some the Gallinari and Williams minutes. If that isn’t successful we might see some of those minutes reduced.

I think we see a fairly big rotation to start which gets reduced as the series progresses depending upon results, adjustments, etc.

I am choosing to be positive about this. I agree that McMillan has significantly more depth and versatility with this team than he has had with any of his previous playoff squads.

I think we see a lot of variety from how he will deploy his team.

To me, the thing to watch is how much he will decide to ride his veterans when things invariably get tough. For example, I think Young-Williams minutes are completely unviable in this match up. And Gallinari at center doesn’t make me feel great about those minutes either.

But if McMillan decides to lean heavily on his vets, these are the lineup combinations that we should expect to see.

Capela will keep them settled on defense. But, in terms of leading through emotional and tense moments, I think this will come down to the Young-Bogdanovic duo.

The most important development over the last half of the regular season might have been the chemistry that this pair grew to share. They are going to have to carry the offense against one of the best defensive teams in the league. If they can produce points when the Knicks elevate their defense it will go a long way to keep things under control.

I think this honestly just comes down to the players sharing the ball and trusting one another.

McMillan’s greatest accomplishment during his time in role this year may have been providing extreme clarity regarding roles and the distribution of offensive responsibility.

I don’t worry about whether Young will give ball up when he needs to do so. I don’t stress about Bogdanovic trying to do too much. The re-integration of Hunter is a potential complication but I think that gets worked out without an issue.

Before this season, I would have been tremendously worried about the workload that would fall to Young in a series like this. Now I really don’t stress about it unless he just tries to do more than is needed. Even if that happens, I think the coaching staff helps him work through that in a timely manner.

(The submitter of this question clarified they meant “how many games”).

But, the Hawks had the best record in the Eastern Conference (tied with the Philadelphia 76ers) and had the second best net rating after the coaching change.

If Atlanta drew the Wizards in a seven game series with home court advantage I think the consensus would be Hawks in six games.

Unless we are talking exclusively about ESPN...