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Second half slump dooms Hawks as Knicks level series in Game 2

NBA: Playoffs-Atlanta Hawks at New York Knicks Elsa/POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports

After a wild ending to Game 1 that saw Trae Young assume either hero or villain status — depending on your perspective — the Atlanta Hawks and the New York Knicks went at it again Wednesday night in Game 2. With an equally raucous crowd to the first matchup at hand, the Knicks rode a second half wave of energy to victory.

Ultimately, despite a hot shooting first half, the Hawks had far too many cold stretches in the second half, which contributed to turning a 15-point lead at one point into a 9-point loss. The execution seemed good enough to warrant a win but some breakdowns in penetration defense and tired legs on the other end sunk Atlanta. The more aggressive strong side and perimeter defense from Tom Thibodeau’s squad may have contributed to fatigue for Atlanta’s key players, and the bench couldn’t muster much to spell the starters.

Here are three factors that stuck out in determining this one:

Minutes allocation and lack of bench production

John Collins had a particularly rough game, picking up two early fouls and five in total, which limited his minutes to just 15 in a contest when the Hawks certainly could have used his services. He ended up with a goose egg in the points column and forced Clint Capela into heavy minutes — who led the team with 36:07 of game time.

Even without this development in the game, Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan seemed intent to play his bench as a full unit and limit his starters’ minutes.

“Our starters played 35 plus minutes,” McMillan said. “That’s a lot of minutes for those guys. That’s probably a little bit more than they average in the regular season. Tonight, because they played 18 minutes in the first half, I thought they wore down in the second half.”

“That’s our normal rotation.” McMillan continued in response to a question about Young’s wait to re-enter the game in the fourth quarter. “Trae normally comes back in at the 8 or 9 minute mark. Trae played 35 minutes... You’ve got to give your bench some time to try to get something going.”

McMillan admitted having a restriction on De’Andre Hunter’s minutes. Although he did log 32 minutes, Hunter faded along with the rest of the team down the stretch, missing some crucial open shots. After converting his first two field goal attempts in the game, there were signs of a breakout playoff performance for the second year player out of Virginia, but a 1-8 finish to the night ended those hopes.

This early find for Hunter in the strong side corner was indicative of how the Knicks adjusted their game plan, which included using crowds of bodies to prevent penetration into the lane by Young even at the cost of someone else beating them. Nerlens Noel doesn’t even blink an eye at the screen and roll by Capela — stopping Young from turning the corner is priority number one.

However, down the stretch of the game those open shots just weren’t falling for Hunter, instead using a 9-for-11 night from the free throw line to end with 18 points on 10 shots to rescue an otherwise disappointing offensive night.

The bench simply failed to provide a lift for some of the struggling starters. Due to Collins’ foul trouble, Danilo Gallinari was pressed into advanced minutes. McMillan ended up fielding an entire bench unit together in both halves, Despite the presence of three veterans to offset this being Kevin Huerter and rookie Onyeka Okongwu’s first taste of playoff stakes, those two young players plus Tony Snell, Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari, combined to shoot just 7-for-26 (26.9%) for just 22 points in a game that saw New York’s bench outscore their own starters.

Trapping defense for Knicks and losing the battle of the boards

The Hawks went 11-for-40 (27.5%) from the field in the second half including 3-for-19 from three (15.8%). Here’s how it looked visually (and avert your eyes as needed):

In what would become a common theme for Atlanta, New York targeted Young or any other ball handler as soon as he initiated offensive sets to get the ball out of his hands. This created a stagnation effect on the offense like in the play below.

“We were one pass and a shot,” McMillan said. “I thought it was a lot of settling on the perimeter as opposed to attack.”

“We know the intensity was going to go up and it really went up in the start of the second half,” McMillan continued. “By the third and fourth quarter, they established the tempo with their pressure defense. We really couldn’t get anything offensively against them. They got the momentum. They started to knock down some shots. I thought we got back on our heels to start that third quarter and allowed them to walk into some threes.”

Elsewhere, Bogdan Bogdanovic indicated that a lack of ball movement and improved play from the Knicks swung the second half.

“We were in a good position,” he said. “... They played amazing [in the] second half. We didn’t move the ball well like we did in the first half. Missed a couple of shots. Didn’t box out a couple of times. That cost us the game.”

Bogdanovic rode some open threes in transition to begin the night 6-for-9 (66.7%) for 14 points, but finished at a 2-for-12 (16.7%) clip. Over half of the Hawks’ field goal attempts were from three, but once the outside shooting dried up there wasn’t much else. The Knicks kept extra men in toward the restricted area and dared Atlanta to beat them from deep. The result was just 28 points in the paint for the visitors.

Further cementing their dominance in the paint was the margin in rebounding, which ended up 54-41 in the favor of the Knicks — one that featured a 13-6 edge in offensive boards. Taj Gibson led the way with four, including a couple of huge ones down the stretch to ice the game.

Reggie Bullock would hit the above three to extend the lead for the Knicks.

“I think we need to be better on the boards,” said Hunter. “I think that’s where they beat us tonight. They got a lot of extra shots. That’s costly in games like this. I think we need to be more physical and fight on the glass.”

The physicality in particular was a clear determining factor in the performance down the stretch. The Knicks certainly weren’t scared to offer extracurricular activities. Possibly as a result, the Hawks would miss their final eight shots, of which six were threes, and next to none were in any particularly tight spaces. It may have simply been a case of no lower body lift left after an the physical toll taken over the course of the game.

Rose and Bullock broke free one too many times

New York did just enough on the offensive side of the ball to even up the series at one. The Knicks got to the foul line a ton in the first half (17 times), offsetting a 7-for-29 (24.1%) shooting start to the night, but the teams would end the night with virtually the same number of free throws taken.

But the damage began in earnest at under the seven-minute mark in the third quarter. With the Knicks staring at a double digit deficit, a ball tapped out by Capela found an open Randle for a wing three to begin the comeback. This snapped an 0-6 start to the game for the 2020-21 NBA Most Improved Player and began to stem the tide for the Knicks.

It wasn’t all pure misfortune, however. There were some notable defensive lapses for the Hawks, especially with regard to Bullock and Derrick Rose. Certainly Rose has had a winding path toward becoming a bench player at this stage in his career, but he’s still very dangerous at getting to the rim.

“[Rose] changed his game and he’s a different player right now,” said Bogdanovic. “He’s tough but they’re tough as a team as well. He had a good game tonight. To stop him, we have to be more physical and we have to do more.”

Below, the entire Hawks team is extremely intent on making life tough for Randle in the paint. A bit too much of a cheat towards the paint lets Rose drill an uncontested triple.

Late in the game, a tough Rose floater over a big man broke the tie for the home team and New York would lead the rest of the way beyond this moment.

While a less potent an offensive player overall, Bullock’s role is extremely clear: spacing the floor with his spot-up shooting. He finished a tidy 4-for-7 from deep range en route to a 15-point outing.

Early, Bullock uses a hindquarter screen from Gibson to allow separation from the trailing Young to fire and hit.

This next three was huge to push the Knick lead to five late in the game.

After trailing by 13 points at the half, Knicks outscored the Hawks 32-18 in the third quarter to enter the final period with a one point lead. The Knicks shot 12-for-22 (54.5%) and 7-for-10 (70%) from three in the third. The Hawks went 5-for-18 (27.8%) over the same time period.

A 30-8 run for the Knicks into the fourth quarter put the Hawks on life support until a late 9-0 run from Atlanta pulled the visitors to within one. But the home team would close on an 10-1 run and secure the series split.

There were some positive notes to take away, however.

Young was 7-for-12 (58.3%) from the field and 4-for-6 (66.7%) from three (many of them from very deep) for 20 points in the first half. He continued his stellar play despite defensive adjustments from New York, ending the night with 30 points on 20 shots and seven assists to boot.

The Hawks got off to a hot start in a hostile arena using some beautiful off ball movement. I wanted to highlight these couple of fun actions which were a big part in the Hawks taking an early lead.

In Game 1 on Sunday evening, the Hawks ran four “Spain pick-and-rolls” to defeat the Knicks. Wednesday night, they countered that action with some fakery. Instead of up screening for the rolling Capela, Hunter slips to top of key for a wide open three. He misses, but Bogdanovic is there for the putback.

In this next one, Bogdanovic and Hunter run around in a floppy set with Capela helping open up space for the wings to flare out to the arc. This helps open up the middle of the floor for Young to splits defense with a floater. The opportunities for Young to get into the lane dried up later in the game and using this action may have been able to reverse that trend.

In the end, Atlanta should be content with a split of the two-game set in Madison Square Garden. Despite the poor shooting and blown double-digit lead, the team had 9-0 run to pull themselves tied in the fourth quarter, so they certainly gave themselves a chance.

However, grinding out two straight victories in an openly hostile environment is very difficult. The friendly confines of State Farm Arena should provide some much needed reprieve beginning with Game 3 on Friday night.