As the Atlanta Hawks prepare themselves to go to battle again in Manhattan, they can be assured that no matter what happens in Game 2 on Wednesday, they will emerge from New York with at least a split after they took Game 1 at Madison Square Garden.
Trae Young will, rightly, receive the plaudits for his stellar performance on his playoff debut, including the game-winner, and there are plenty of stories out there from lots of different outlets praising Young’s performance — again rightly so, he deserves this.
Young was one of quite a number of players on both sides making their playoff debut, including Knicks All-Star Julius Randle.
Randle — as discussed prior to the series — absolutely feasted on the Hawks in the regular season but in Game 1 he was held to just 15 points on 6-of-23 shooting from the field — a huge factor from the Knicks’ side as to why they dropped Game 1 on their homecourt.
How did the Hawks accomplish this? How much were they responsible for in holding Randle to a number far below his season averages (both for the season and against the Hawks)?
Let’s take a dive into the film to see what the Hawks did and why Randle struggled.
The key was Clint Capela. Capela may have only guarded Randle for a total of 26 seconds on the ball but he was the key to the Hawks’ defense of Randle.
When Randle would catch the ball, the Hawks would try to force him in a certain direction, and Capela would then step into the space the Hawks wanted Randle to step into as he would obviously spin or head in the space given.
Randle then had a decision to make.
To get started, Randle gets positioned on the right block, defended by De’Andre Hunter as John Collins switches onto RJ Barrett. On the catch, Hunter shows Randle to his right shoulder and it’s here when Capela, off of the ball, positions himself to cut off Randle as Bogdan Bogdanovic takes a step back to cover Nerlens Noel in place of Capela. Randle, now seeing Capela, rises into the jump shot which is missed:
Next, Randle goes back to the block with Collins guarding. Again, Capela hovers in close proximity to Randle as the help defender, and Randle passes to the weakside corner. The Hawks do blow their defensive assignment somewhat as Collins loses track of Randle, who relocates to the three-point line, and when Barrett fires the ball back to Randle on the perimeter, Randle fakes Collins off of his feet and steps into an open jumper which is missed:
A lucky break for the Hawks here but this play typifies the game for both the Hawks defending Randle and for Randle himself: the Hawks threw a different look at him which unsettled him and Randle missed shots on his own, too.
On the catch at the high-post, Randle is guarded by Hunter who, again, angles himself to bait Randle into going to his right where Capela, again, has rotated and is in the waiting for Randle. Randle spins to his right — as Hunter allows — and his side-step jumper is contested by both Hunter and Capela and falls short:
On the opposite block this time, Collins is matched onto Randle and on the catch, Collins shows Randle a space going left. Capela, this time, is a little closer to the ball/Randle this time but, again, is waiting in the wings for him. This time, Randle doesn’t settle for the shot but passes it back out to the perimeter where the Knicks eventually get a shot from the outside with Reggie Bullock, which is missed:
On the out of bounds play, the Knicks inbound to Randle in the corner, who is immediately put into a difficult spot with Gallinari right next to him and Capela looming too. Randle desperately tries to find some avenue out of his predicament and he eventually finds Rose, who makes a quick and excellent read to quickly get that ball to the weakside corner for a good look from Barrett on a three but cannot convert:
Towards the end of the third quarter, Randle is faced by Gallinari with, again, Capela lurking. With Taj Gibson hovering right on the baseline with Huerter covering him, Randle walks right into a very crowded area and his attempted pass out of his predicament is deflected by Gallinari for the turnover, leading to one of the pivotal plays of this game as Lou Williams hits the three-pointer heading the other way:
A massive sequence for the Hawks here with that steal and three-pointer from Williams as the third quarter ticked down.
Guarded by Collins on the left-block, Capela again lurks on the scene but this time Randle tries to shoot over Collins but to no avail as his shot — like many in Game 1 — is missed:
A different scenario on this next possession for Randle, who begins from the three-point line and easily drives by Hunter. Capela then steps in to cut-off Randle and Randle is quick to pass the ball out to Barrett who misses the contested three:
The Knicks didn’t know how to go about this wrinkle the Hawks threw at Randle defensively but a key for the Knicks to solving it going forward is Randle being a bit more assertive and snap in his decision-making. There were a number of these possessions where he should have looked to make a pass, and as the game went on he did this a little more.
Have a look at this clip where Randle makes a snap pass to Alec Burks, and that is the kind of play Randle needs to make.
On a switch at the top of the perimeter, Randle is guarded by Williams and as soon as Randle catches the ball, Huerter immediately double-teams. The decision from Randle this time is snap and he finds the hot-hand Alec Burks for the bucket.
Randle himself acknowledges he needs to make his reads quicker.
“I don’t think they did anything that I haven’t seen before this year or that will make me feel like I have to adjust, readjust, whatever,” said Randle via Peter Botte of the New York Post. “I’ll make my adjustments, make my reads quicker, and come back better next time.”
The Knicks also need to do a better job spacing in those scenarios for Randle (not the direct one we just looked at but in general), because there’s an opening somewhere if the Hawks are sending a second body in Randle’s direction. Derrick Rose did a good job finding an opening in the corner with a quick read and pass on a possession we looked, and Randle himself found RJ Barrett for a three-point attempt in such a situation.
The Knicks missed a lot of good chances offensively on these possessions by failing to hit their three-pointers from those scenarios — the Hawks caught a break in some regards.
The Hawks’ use of Capela wasn’t the only reason why Randle struggled in Game 1 — they contested a lot of his shots and made those shots tough shots.
Off of a miss, Randle takes the ball down the floor, attacks Gallinari off of the dribble, gets the better of him but Capela is there to help contest the shot at the rim. After the miss, Randle collects the offensive rebound but Kevin Huerter gets his hands on the ball and deflects it out of play before Randle can go back up with the ball underneath the rim:
Huerter was credited with a block on this play, a heads-up play to prevent an easy basket for Randle at the rim.
Here, Gallinari is matched up against Randle, which is not ideal but, to his credit, Gallinari is right in Randle’s space on the perimeter and when Randle rises for three, he realizes he can’t shoot over Gallinari like he can over Hunter or Collins and quickly gets out of that jump shot. Randle quickly relocates to the corner and Gallinari gets to him quickly and when Randles bodies Gallinari out of the way somewhat and off of the bounce off of Gallinari, Randle shifts towards the baseline and Tony Snell is in place to switch and contest any shot Randle wants to take and the All-Star is forced to pass, which is deflected out of bounds with 0.7 seconds left:
Gallinari’s defense is well documented at this stage but this was a good defensive effort from Gallinari here and in general on Randle in general in Game 1, which was a surprise.
Gallinari would again make things tricky for Randle on this possession as he does a good contesting this shot from Randle:
Even Lou Williams was ready to help on Randle near the baseline. Gallinari is in a good spot to contest Randle and as Williams stumbles onto the scene, with Randle taking a tough shot at a difficult angle:
At the top, Randle handles the ball as Derrick Rose comes across as the Knicks look for a switch but Bogdanovic shows off of the “screen” preventing Randle from turning the corner and finding Rose, who gets a decent look on the floater inside which is missed:
Without Capela, it wouldn’t be possible but it was still very much a team effort when it came to slowing down Randle.
“It was different and I definitely feel like we were all locked in as a unit,” said Collins of the Randle matchup following the Hawks’ Game 1 victory. “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.”
Not only did the Hawks defend Randle, they did so without fouling, with Randle only going to the free throw line twice in Game 1.
“I thought we tried to stay in front of him,” said McMillan of Randle. “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.”
Randle’s struggles weren’t always down to the Hawks’ defense of him. They contested his shot very well but Randle didn’t help himself at times with his shot selection.
We’ve looked at a lot of these but here’s another, on the out-of-bounds play, Randle catches the ball and — defended by Gallinari — elects to fall-away for the leaning three-pointer which he misses:
On the pick-and-roll with Gallinari and Rose involved — which is usually bad news for the Hawks — Randle receives the ball on the roll and works his way towards the baseline to fade and fall-away but the contest from Gallinari is good and Randle can’t convert:
Randle also missed a number of shots he would normally make and the Hawks caught a break in this regard.
In the season-series, this shot attempt over John Collins was one Randle would consistently tuck-away but not in Game 1:
Here, Randle stops on a dime and opens up a window for him to attempt a shot just behind the free throw line as Hunter stumbles. Hunter gets a hand up but it’s not quite near the release of the shot from Randle and those kind of contests were ones he would bury on the Hawks:
Next, a basically identical shot attempt for Randle just above the free throw line with the Hawks unable to effectively contest but it’s another shot that goes astray for Randle:
Off of a three-point miss from Barrett in the corner, the Knicks collect the offensive rebound through Gibson, who throws the ball back out to the perimeter and Randle, who has an open, albeit deep, look from three which he can’t convert:
Here’s the thing: the Hawks defended Randle well and Randle missed good opportunities. Both are true. With Randle struggling as he did in Game 1, it was so important for the Hawks to take advantage and win the game because the chances Randle shoots 6-of-23 from the field again in this series are low.
Randle was probably due regression from the season series anyways but not to this degree and the Hawks caught a break. Again, yes, they defended him well — and Nate McMillan and his staff deserve a lot of credit for the defensive look they threw at Randle as well as the players for executing it, because it definitely caught the Knicks and Randle off-guard — but Randle took a lot of difficult shots that he didn’t need to and he missed shots he normally makes.
Randle will need to be more assertive when the Hawks throw this look again in Game 2 and it’ll be interesting to see how differently the Knicks organize themselves when that comes.
Either way, Game 2 is must-win for New York and to even the series they need their star to arrive onto the playoff scene like Young did in Game 1. It won’t be long until we find out.
Game 2 of Knicks-Hawks coming soon — can the Hawks continue to hold Randle below his season averages or will the revenge game come?
Until next time...