The Atlanta Hawks returned to the court for Game 1 of the 2021 NBA playoffs with a Game 1 victory of the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Sunday evening, 107-105.
Trae Young led the way with 32 points and 10 assists on his playoff debut while Bogdan Bogdanovic scored 18 points.
For the Knicks, Alec Burks scored 27 points off the bench while Derrick Rose added 17 points.
Both sides were pretty nervous looking to start Game 1, with Sunday’s game marking the official playoff debut for many as both offenses started slow. It was the Hawks, however, that got going first, taking an 11 point lead in the first quarter. The Knicks eventually battled back with their second unit to close the lead and from there it was a pretty tight affair.
We’ll cover the other nuances of this game and its bigger picture but for now, we’re going to fast-forward to the fourth quarter and a Knicks timeout with 4:10 remaining in this game with the Knicks leading 93-91 and look at the plays down the stretch and look at how the Hawks got this one done.
After a miss from Julius Randle out of the timeout, Young comes off of the Clint Capela screen, which draws a number of players towards him including weakside corner defender RJ Barrett. Young whips a beautiful ball to the weakside corner to Bogdanovic who dispatches the three to give the Hawks the lead:
Burks was on fire all night long for the Knicks coming off of the bench as he pump-faked his way to 27 points as well as a few threes but misses this one from the corner, contested by De’Andre Hunter:
In response, the Hawks run the same screen for Young with Capela but this time Hunter is there to set the down screen on Taj Gibson. While everyone else is backpedaling with Young coming downhill, Hunter goes in the other direction which misdirects everyone and when Young pops the ball back to Hunter he has an open look at the three-pointer which he hits:
This is a beautiful play from the Hawks to give Hunter an open shot at the top — with all the bodies and the ball going one way as Hunter goes another.
The Knicks do finally respond to the Hawks’ three-point punch as Young gets switched on Barrett in the corner, who backs down Young inside and scores in the paint:
Bogdanovic probably needs to help a little bit more on that possession, the Hawks can’t allow Barrett single-coverage on Young like that.
Again, Young comes off of the screen, explores before rising into the jump shot but Rose is able to recover and block the shot:
A notable change for the Knicks down the stretch was the insertion of Gibson in place of Nerlens Noel, who injured his foot/ankle in the fourth quarter. Gibson came in and committed a number of uncalled fouls/illegal screens and add this to the mix as John Collins tries to defend Randle on the perimeter but Gibson’s interference allows Randle to pull the trigger and hit the three-pointer to give the Knicks the lead:
To reply, Young again comes off of the screen from Capela and gets downhill before putting up the floater which he hits, plus the foul as Gibson makes contact:
The Hawks began to show a little more on screens for Rose as the ball-handler in the second half and they do on this next possession too. Rose pops the ball to Gibson, who touches it to the corner to Burks who hits the three-pointer in the corner:
With the crowd fully into it, the Hawks come the other way and the crowd are further energized as Young turns the ball over as he attempts to find Capela:
The momentum did seem to be swinging slightly towards the hosts as Rose gets switched onto by Capela inside — helped by Bogdanovic — before Rose kicks the ball to the corner to Burks, who fakes to shed Hunter, steps inside and hits the jumper to give the Knicks the 103-101 lead with 1:11 remaining:
Out of the timeout, Young drives left this time and attempts to find Bogdanovic in the corner. The ball hits the back of RJ Barrett and falls right to Bogdanovic who hits the clutch three to tie the game again:
An enormous slice of luck for the Hawks here because this probably should have been a turnover but, luckily for the the visitors, it hits off of Barrett’s back right to Bogdanovic.
Then, Rose gets downhill off of the Gibson screen, gets close to the rim before kicking the ball out to the perimeter and Randle, who makes the extra pass to Burks in the corner, who fakes his way to an open jumper on the baseline but this time he can’t convert, one of Burks’ few misses on the game:
Young responds with a drive on Barrett and draws the foul and free throws, upheld after the Knicks challenged this call:
After a miss from Randle from three, the Knicks collect the offensive rebound, swing the ball before eventually finding Rose, who drives from the three-point line and hits the floater to tie the game with just under 10 seconds remaining and the Hawks call for time:
At the end of the first half, the Knicks dusted off Frank Ntilikina to guard Young to end the first half and did so again here on this possession where the Hawks, in theory, could have taken the last shot if they wanted. Young shakes his way past Ntilikina, gets downhill and hits the floater with 0.9 left to give the Hawks the lead:
A shot that Young was getting all night long, he gets at the most important time of the game as he silences the Knicks crowd — cannot be understated what a massive play and shot this was from Young.
It turned out to be the game-winner as the Knicks, officially, didn’t register a shot attempt to end the game as they get the ball to Randle out of the timeout who wasn’t able to turn and release in time and it was the Hawks who took Game 1 on the road.
Postgame, Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan praised his side’s composure and execution on both sides of the ball.
“We need big plays down the stretch, we made big shots, we got stops when we needed to,” said McMillan when asked about the Hawks’ final offensive trip. “I thought these guys showed poise going down the stretch in a building for the first time with a lot of energy. I thought we did a good job showing some poise, showing calmness and being connected out there. You got to make shots, you’ve got to make shots when you get those shots. ‘Dre made a big three for us, Bogi made a big three in the corner and Trae on his finish, that’s a big shot with the game on the line.”
In his first playoff appearance, Young showed that he belongs on this stage: he was the best player on the court by far in Game 1. 32 points on 11-of-23 shooting from the field to go with 10 assists and just two turnovers.
“I thought he was really good,” said McMillan of Young. “I thought he did a good job of managing the game, controlling the tempo. Only two turnovers tonight, did a really good job of taking care of the ball. I thought he should have had more assists, we just missed some open looks on some of his kick-outs. I thought he did a really good job executing the game-plan tonight: not playing in traffic, passing in traffic. This is a good defensive team, they make you pay if you play in traffic. I thought he did a good job of getting the ball out to the shooters, we just missed a lot of shots tonight.”
With the way this game ended up going, the opportunity for Young to shine was cemented as the Knicks tied the game with 10 seconds remaining, giving Young and the Hawks the chance to take the final shot on the road, knowing that, at worst, the game will go to overtime if the shot is missed.
“Just trying to find a way open to get the ball,” said Young of the game-winning possession. “John was going to come set a screen for me and then he lost his shoe. I kind of waved him off because I didn’t want anything out there to get messy, so I had to go make a play. I told my team in the huddle I was going to make a play, too. It just happened like that.”
“We know that he’s tough, he’s small, but he’s a tough kid,” added McMillan of Young. “He’s not afraid. He’s not afraid of taking that shot and he did tonight and got us Game 1. He believes in himself, he plays with a lot of confidence out there and he’s a fearless small guard. I think it’s showing growth. His first opportunity in the playoffs to play in an environment like this, he did a nice job tonight.”
Teammate Lou Williams was not only impressed with Young’s performance on the court but his budding leadership qualities as he led the Hawks to a Game 1 victory on the road.
“Speaks for itself,” said Williams of Young’s composure in Game 1. “I thought he played very well. The moment wasn’t too big for him, he was ready to go, he was excited about the opportunity, took full advantage of it. He belongs. He’s a postseason player, he’s showed it tonight. I thought he took a big step tonight in a leadership role and just showing he was prepared for the big moment.”
All night long, Young was able to turn the corner coming off of the pick-and-rolls and get to his floater in the lane.
Time and time again, Young was able to do this, such as this possession where — going to his left — he gets the screen from Collins and is able to turn the corner and get into the lane and into his floater as the Knicks backpedal:
This time aided by Gallinari and Capela, Young is able to get deep inside the paint and this time hits the runner near the rim:
Poor camera selection aside on this next possession as we start by looking at McMillan deep in thought, but you can see Young gets the Collins screen, Randle basically allows Young to waltz into the lane and Young again hits the floater inside:
Off of the high-screen from Collins, Young gets inside and the Knicks you can see are fearful of the lob to Capela as Collins looms on the perimeter. As the Knicks backpedal, it allows Young to get to his floater again:
Here, Young comes off of the double screen from Collins and Capela, turns the corner only to find himself almost completely alone and hits an easy runner off of glass:
We’ve looked at this bucket in the fourth quarter already but it’s the same idea: Young comes off of the screen and gets to his floater:
Time and time and time again... If the Knicks can’t figure out how to defend this, they’re in serious trouble and will have to hope Young has one of those games where his floater just won’t fall (and they can happen, to be fair, but Young seemed to finally get on top of this in the last month of the season).
The problem for the Knicks is that if they commit bodies to Young off of those screens, he’ll just find Capela and Collins on lobs all day long — that’s what will open up for the Hawks — and those are extremely high percentage looks, so, the Knicks might have to pick their poison and hope Young just misses those floaters.
One of the other keys to Young’s night was that he finally got to the free throw line in the fourth quarter after the Hawks, as a team, shot 2-of-3 from the line through three quarters. In the fourth quarter alone, Young shot 9-for-9 at the line en route to 13 fourth quarter points for Young.
“We took what the defense was giving us,” said McMillan when asked about the officiating and the Hawks’ lack of free throws. “The first half, we had a lot of kick-outs. The second half, the lane opened up a little more and we were able to get to the basket, get to the free throw line.”
The Hawks are relatively inexperienced as a group in the playoffs but do have a few scattered veterans like Capela, Danilo Gallinari and Williams who have been to the playoffs a number of times. Williams was impressed not just with Young’s performance in his first playoff game but the team as a whole as many made their playoff debuts.
“Nobody looked shocked, nobody looked like the moment was too big and what a hell of a place to have your debut,” said Williams of how the younger players fared in their playoff debut. “Madison Square Garden, the first time the fans were in the building. They were really excited to be back. It felt good. There’s no better place to have your debut than Madison Square Garden with a very young, talented Knicks team that’s on the upswing. The energy was electric. I felt like none of the young guys (that) the moment was too big for them.”
Speaking of Williams, he played a huge role in this game in the second half. The Knicks found a bit of momentum towards the end of the third quarter as the Hawks’ offense slowed. Williams hit two big baskets to end the third quarter to cut a seven-point Knicks lead to just two as the final quarter began, before Williams tied the game there too as he went on a 7-0 personal run at a very precarious time for the Hawks as the Knicks had their largest lead when they led by seven points.
McMillan ended up leaving Williams in the game — in place of Young — a little longer than one would expect in a playoff game, and postgame it was revealed that Young himself told McMillan to leave Williams in the game as he was rolling.
“Lou did a nice job for us, especially in the third and fourth quarter,” said McMillan postgame. “Was able to keep us close and it got to a point where he was playing well and I was going to sub him with Trae and Trae basically said ‘Let him go.’ He’s doing a good job, we’re going to let him go, we left Lou in the game and he was able to keep us close. That’s the role of a backup is to keep that game close or go ahead and he did a good job of scoring which we know he’s capable of. We definitely needed his scoring at that point in the game.”
“That’s something I’ve learned being part of this league, the game is so long,” said Young of telling McMillan to leave Williams in the game. “Anytime you can get breaks or anytime you can get a rest and you’re winning and everything is going good for your team, you want to use it. I was about to go back in, Lou had got a couple of buckets to go and I think we were making a run. I looked at Nate and just told him ‘I can stay out a couple of minutes,’ and things like that because they were rolling. It’s just knowing the game, knowing the time and there’s still a lot of time left and our guys are rolling so just leave them out there and they keep it going to let them go.”
Williams had praised Young’s leadership postgame already before he was asked about this himself, where he went on to praise Young’s leadership again in recognizing when other players have it going on the court.
“Trae has confidence in me, I have confidence in Trae, that’s what it takes to be a great team,” said Williams of Young asking to leave Williams in the game. “Being a team player, understanding when there’s an opportunity for another player that has it going to stay in the game and give you an opportunity to win the game. For him to recognize that, he’s showing that he’s ready to take that next step in leading this team and being the guy for us.”
Williams finished with 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting in 12 minutes and his points were so incredibly timely for the Hawks. They were also sorely needed from Williams, who — generally speaking — struggled with the Hawks and hadn’t played too well or consistently as the regular season wound down. As you would probably expect for a veteran like Williams, it’s a different story in the playoffs.
The Hawks sorely needed his production because even with that burst in the second half, the Hawks’ bench was still outscored 64-31. Danilo Gallinari struggled as he shot 3-of-11 from the field and 1-of-7 from three as he scored just seven points.
Kevin Huerter scored eight points on 3-of-7 from the field but still played a good game and his value last night really came as a playmaker, where he should see more time as the backup 1.
Staying on the topic of the bench, Onyeka Okongwu played just 2:40, coming in a stint in the first half. In that time, Okongwu just looked completely out of his depth, which is to be expected of a rookie big in a series where the opposing bigs are Randle, Noel and Gibson: it was just never a spot where Okongwu was going to shine and unsurprisingly McMillan elected not to play him in the second half.
Going forward, Okongwu probably shouldn’t play again in this series — certainly at the Garden, maybe at home Okongwu would fare better — because the Hawks’ second unit already struggles against this team (and that was on show again last night as the Knicks’ second unit erased the Hawks’ 11 point lead), a rookie big against the plethora of quality bigs that the Knicks possess.
I can understand McMillan wanting to give Okongwu an opportunity to experience the playoffs and he’s the Hawks’ backup big-man (which is a fault of the roster construction, the one flaw of this year’s team is that a rookie big ended up being the primary backup big) but in a series where the Hawks have a legitimate chance to advance and in a series where — in Game 1 at least — it proved to be as tight as many believed it would be and the Knicks’ bench pressing their significant advantage as feared, each possession is so important and when Okongwu was on the floor, the Knicks took advantage.
Okongwu has come on as the season has progressed and he’ll be exciting to watch next season, but for right now, this is a very tough spot for him to succeed. It’ll be interesting to see if McMillan tries him again in the first quarter on Wednesday and indeed if he’ll go back to the all-bench lineup because that also did not go well in the first half.
McMillan’s rotations were that of a regular season and despite having an entire week off and the Hawks not playing until Wednesday, none of the Hawks’ starters played more than 36 minutes, which is bizarre.
Looking at the Knicks’ side of things, their bench duo of Rose (17 points) and Immanuel Quickley (10 points) contributed as expected but 27 points from Burks was unexpected. They needed all of it, as Randle scored just 15 points on 6-of-23 shooting from the field.
“I thought we tried to stay in front of him,” said McMillan of Randle’s tough Game 1. “Stay in front of him, don’t foul him, make him shoot over the top. He’s had such a great season, he’s been dominant in our first three games and we just needed to stay in front of him and not allow him any space to attack us. I thought our guys who rotated on him, some of the guys who switched on him did a good job of staying in front of him.”
When you look at the shot chart, you can see that Randle took a lot of jump shots. He made these jump shots in the regular season but not in Game 1, and his attempts at the rim were limited and difficult.
“It was different and I definitely feel like we were all locked in as a unit,” added Collins of the Randle matchup. “What we did required all five of our guys to be locked in and ready to rotate and move at any given time. I felt like everybody understood their job tonight, as well as myself, ‘Dre, whoever was on him the entire night — Bogi had a couple of possessions he had to guard Julius, and Kevin (Huerter). It was a real team effort tonight, we understood our job and we took care of business.”
With Randle unlikely to struggle to this degree again in this series, it made this game absolutely imperative for the Hawks to steal on the road, and they did, to their credit.
I wouldn’t go as far to say that the Hawks played their best basketball. The bench (more so Gallinari) did not have a great game and this win arguably doesn’t even without that huge slice of luck when Young’s pass hit off of the back of RJ Barrett and Bogdanovic gets that three-pointer up in a split-second’s reaction.
“They almost got a steal out of it, not going to lie” said Bogdanovic of the three. “I saw the ball and I dived in and took it and I was open for not even a second. I took the shot. Nothing else.”
That said, Young and Collins played very good games, excellent games (Collins’ game will fly under the radar but he was fantastic on both sides of the ball). Bogdanovic got going in the second half and hit timely threes, massive threes in the second half.
No matter what happens in Game 2, the Hawks will emerge from New York with a split especially for that to come in Game 1 in what would have been a tense experience given that, for many, it was their playoff debut in an intense environment with 15,000 fans in attendance.
“I’ve got a lot of emotions,” said Young of his emotions postgame. “Obviously I’m happy, I’m excited we won. I’m truly blessed to be in this position but I know the work’s not done yet. Just one game, enjoy this win tonight ... back at it tomorrow.”
“I loved it,” said Collins of playing with the crowd in a high intensity game. “Sometimes the regular season can be a bit dreary, so to come out with that crowd after also not having crowds for the entire year in MSG, first playoff game, a lot of stuff that I feel like I had on my mind. Tried to calm myself and play the best basketball that I can. It was a great experience, I’m glad it’s out the of the way.”
That said, the Hawks are cautious as to not get too far ahead of themselves after just one game and know they can play better.
“It’s only Game 1,” said Bogdanovic postgame. “If we didn’t score a couple of buckets, didn’t get a couple of stops maybe this game turns their way. It’s only Game 1. I know we can play better than this, that’s for sure. Nothing else. We don’t have time to enjoy (this win) right now, got to get ready for the second game.”
An extremely entertaining game, an extremely tense game but one the Hawks emerged on top. One in the books for the Hawks and Young, who silenced Madison Square Garden with a memorable performance that will live long in the memory for those involved.
The Hawks (leading 1-0) are back in action at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday at 7:30 ET.
Until next time...