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Hawks overcome physical encounter, take commanding 3-1 lead over Knicks

A commanding series lead for the Hawks ahead of Game 5.

New York Knicks v Atlanta Hawks - Game Four Photo by Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks took a commanding 3-1 series lead against the New York Knicks as their first round series continued on Sunday afternoon as the hosts dominated Game 4 in the second half to take the 113-96 victory.

Trae Young led the way with 27 points and nine assists, while John Collins enjoyed his best game of the series with 22 points. For the Knicks, Julius Randle scored 23 points while RJ Barrett also had his best of the series with 21 points.

With a 2-1 lead and Game 4 on their home floor, the Hawks entered this game with a huge opportunity and they looked a little nervous to start this game. The first half was an offensive struggle for both sides at times, with the Hawks taking just a four point lead into the locker room after shooting 2-of-12 from three in the first quarter.

Two offensive bursts in the first half from the Hawks were basically what put them ahead at half: three threes in 57 seconds and an eight point burst in 40 seconds later in the second quarter. Outside of those bursts, the Hawks were largely underwhelming in the first half offensively.

However, their opponents were even worse offensively in the first half, a first half offensive rating of 96.1 for the Knicks, who struggled for offense outside of Randle and Derrick Rose (12 and 16 points respectively in the first half).

Game 4 turned in the third quarter as the Hawks finally created separation — something they hadn’t managed to do up to that point and a consistent theme all series long.

The key was the start of the third quarter, when the Hawks chained a number of baskets together while the Knicks went cold to begin the second half.

Young gets the Hawks started with a three-pointer as he receives the screen from Clint Capela and hits the three as Taj Gibson hangs back on the screen and Rose’s contest is unable to deter Young:

The Hawks get away with one on the defensive end as Reggie Bullock gets a good look at a three-pointer as Young falls behind the play:

Young continued his form to begin the third quarter as he gets Gibson stumbling before hitting a tough, contested shot:

Despite a 16-point first half, it was a struggle for Rose in the second half and it begins here. He gets inside and ahead of Hunter, but Collins puts up a decent contest as the help defender. Rose misses the shot by Randle follows for the Knicks to get them on the board in the second half:

De’Andre Hunter restores the Hawks’ nine point lead after he initially uses the Capela screen before rejecting it and hitting the jump shot on Barrett:

Randle hasn’t always had easy look in this series but on a switch from Hunter to Bogdanovic, Randle believes he can shoot over Bogdanovic and attempts to do so but misses the outside shot:

After a missed three from Bogdanovic, Randle comes the other way and his pass to Rose goes through his hands and Bogdanovic picks up the loose ball before finding himself in a 2-v-1 situation in transition where he finds Hunter who scores at the rim, plus the foul:

Bogdanovic probably didn’t maximize the situation to break the defender down before passing to Hunter but a strong finish from Hunter to score, plus the foul. With that bucket — and the made free throw from Hunter — the Hawks finally take their first double-digit lead of the game.

After a made three-pointer from Barrett to bring the lead back down to nine points, Collins was the next Hawk to mark his stamp on the game as he hits a ludicrously difficult shot with Randle draped on him 20 feet out from the basket as the shot clock is about to expire:

After Randle is called for a travel on the subsequent possession, the Hawks run a nice play on the left-side of the court as Bogdanovic receives the screen from Capela — who rolls — as Young looms near the top of the three-point line. With the roll of Capela drawing Randle away from Collins, Bogdanovic fires a pass to the weakside corner where Collins hits the three and gives the Hawks a 14 point lead and a Knicks timeout:

The Knicks would cut this lead to seven points but the Hawks responded moments later to bring the lead back up to 15 points. While the Knicks cut the lead to 12 points with an Alec Burks three with 1:30 to go, the Hawks had one more run in them before the end of the third quarter.

Switched onto by Randle, Young drives inside, draws the Knicks’ defense before finding Bogdanovic for a quick release on the catch-and-shoot three:

“I honestly added that during the season,” said Bogdanovic of his quick catch-and-shoot speed. “The defense started changing (of guarding) me and they don’t want to help, so I had to adjust and do something else. I had to do it better, find another way and I started working on it and I learned how to translate it into the game really quick and it works for me well.”

After a three-pointer from Randle, the Hawks respond again as Gallinari, on the catch, drives inside before stopping, pumping and hitting the mid-range jumper:

With the shot clock off at the end of a disappointing third quarter for the Knicks, Randle tries to turn the corner and while he does get the jump on Gallinari off of the dribble, Onyeka Okongwu does a great job contesting what would have been an open jump shot for Randle:

Okongwu has struggled a lot in this series (he was better in Game 3), but this was an excellent contest.

New York’s misery would be compounded as Bogdanovic takes the ball up the floor off of the miss and hits the pull-up three to give the Hawks a 17 point lead heading into the fourth quarter:

In the end, it was a 35-22 third quarter in favor of the Hawks, with the hosts shooting 52% from the field, 55% from three as well as 10 free throws, all of which were spread out as no Hawks attempted more than two free throws in the third quarter.

From there, the Hawks faced no threat of a New York comeback as Atlanta’s lead never dipped below 15 points in the fourth quarter and grew to as many as 26 points as the hosts ran out to an easy victory in the end with time even for Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan to clear the bench.

Having split Games 1 and 2 on the road, the Hawks did what they needed to do in Games 3 and 4: take care of business on their home floor, with McMillan pleased with his team’s performance across the full 48 minutes.

“I thought we did our jobs and defended homecourt,” said McMillan postgame. “I thought the guys responded, they played all 48 minutes with a sense of urgency out there. Our defense picked up in the second half. We did a good job of making it tough for them to score and trying to keep them in front. Offensively, I thought we had much better ball movement in that second half, making them work defensively and we were able to get a rhythm on the offensive end of the floor.”

In a physical affair, both sides saw flagrant fouls assessed as Kevin Huerter, Bullock and Randle all picked up flagrant one fouls, with Bullock receiving his technical foul for charging towards the Hawks bench and Danilo Gallinari after an alleged elbow. Randle decided to exact revenge by sticking an elbow of his own into Gallinari and received a flagrant foul for his troubles.

“I honestly didn’t know that Bullock was mad at me or was running towards me, I didn’t see that, I was just going back to the bench to get my water, to be honest,” said Gallinari of the Bullock and Randle’s flagrant fouls. “I wasn’t really paying attention to what was happening but I think that’s the normal reaction when you lose a game like this. It’s something to be expected and it’s OK, we’re all competitors and we hate to lose.”

As Gallinari said, it’s the playoffs and incidents of this nature aren’t out of the blue in a high-stakes environment, with Collins going into detail about how frustrations between two teams rise.

“I’m guessing so, a little bit,” said Collins on if the Knicks have been feeling frustration. “I just feel like that’s the nature of a playoff series. You play a team so many times, things are going to happen. At the end, guys aren’t really going to like each other too much on top of the fact New York plays a physical style of basketball and obviously we’re going to get tired of getting pushed around and hit and whatnot. It is what it is in a sense, guys are competing and it’s playoff basketball but we just try to avoid the noise and handle business.”

Collins himself was a victim of the physical nature of this game, receiving an elbow in the face from Randle on a drive to the rim, requiring stitches in the locker room before returning to the game.

Despite those stitches — and a burst lower lip — Collins enjoyed the physical nature of the game and how the Hawks haven’t allowed themselves to be rattled by the Knicks’ physicality.

“I loved it,” said Collins on matching the physicality. “I felt like from the very start we came out with a mindset that we weren’t going to let the physical game get to us. I feel like we matched their physicality as well as played our game. I feel like the ball was moving tonight as well as the crowd-I feel like all aspects were hitting for us today and we were just taking advantage of it and win the game.”

Every Hawk who spoke postgame was repeatedly asked about the Knicks’ physicality and the Knicks’ potentially mounting frustration. Young eventually cut-in to say he preferred to keep things about basketball.

“I don’t care if they’re in their feelings, who’s mad or who’s not, it’s basketball at the end of the day,” said Young postgame. “We’re just trying to win. All the extra stuff, it is what it is. We’re locked in and we’re focused on us and we’re trying to win a game.”

Going back to Collins, the fourth year big-man enjoyed his best game of the series by quite a considerable margin, scoring 22 points on 6-of-10 shooting from the field, 2-of-3 from three and 8-of-8 from the free throw line. Collins has struggled at times (particularly in Game 2) with foul trouble in the series but showed how valuable he is to this team when he’s on the court.

“He’s played well for us all season long,” said McMillan of Collins. “Certainly, he got into foul trouble two games ago and wasn’t able to stay out on the floor. When he’s out on the floor it just helps us so much because he give us that versatility to spread the floor as well as play inside and attack. Tonight, again, defending for us, providing that scoring and rebounding, we need him out on the floor. A solid job tonight.”

What the boxscore won’t highlight was Collins’ defensive impact on this game. Arguably, he was just as impressive on the defensive end of the floor as he was on the offensive end. Plays like this, where Collins does an excellent job contesting vertically against Randle at the rim:

“Very impressed,” said Young of Collins’ performance. “The way he played, battled, played strong, was getting blocks, rebounds and then getting elbowed in the face. Being able to come back out there and still play is big time.”

With Collins on and off the floor at times with the foul trouble, Collins hasn’t always been able to find a groove offensively: a very different case in Game 4.

“I told him, one of the best games this season,” said Bogdanovic of Collins. “The way he was controlling himself the whole game. He knew the game was going to come to him. I’m sure he didn’t play the way he wanted to play in the first couple of games but he was calm, he was pretty confident in what he was doing and he got a rhythm back. We need him. That’s why we won, with this difference.”

Another Hawk who made a key contribution last night was Gallinari, scoring 21 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the field off of the bench as he continues to turn his series around in Atlanta after struggling hard in New York.

Interestingly, Gallinari only hit one three pointer, the majority of his scoring came from inside the arc and at the free throw line (shooting 8-of-8). Postgame, Gallinari discussed how he had settled from outside the arc in New York and has focused more on simply taking what the defense is offering him and making better reads offensively.

“Just reading what the defense is giving me, taking the ball to the basket a little more,” said Gallinari postgame. “I thought the first two games I was relying too much on my three-point shot and I wasn’t reading the defense the way I should be read it. Just being a little more aggressive going into the paint.”

Going back to New York, it’ll be interesting to see if this trend from Gallinari continues. If it can, the Hawks will benefit hugely because now that Rose is starting games, the majority of the Knicks’ bench scoring has disappeared and Gallinari is key to the Hawks winning that battle.

It almost goes without saying at this stage but Young continues to shine on the biggest platform. His 27 points were not just a game high but he also dished out nine assists with just two turnovers as he continues to excellently take care of the ball in the postseason.

Young is continuing to make history in his first playoff series.

The Knicks have had no answer for Young all series long, and not to say that the Knicks can’t figure an adjustment out (because it’s worth pointing out the Hawks were struggling to guard Isaiah Thomas in their 2016 series with the Celtics before the Hawks threw their adjustment at Thomas in Game 5 and slowed him down before eventually winning that series), but even if Young were to struggle — even today his shooting percentages were not stellar — there are other shot-makers on this Atlanta team.

“They are not a one-man team,” said RJ Barrett postgame.

Speaking of the Knicks, their offensive woes continue to drag them to their doom. They had a much better offensive game from Randle, Barrett had his best game of the series by far and Derrick Rose (while only scoring two points in the second half) kept the Knicks in the game in the first half. Add to that Alec Burks and Obi Toppin both scored 12 and 13 points respectively off of the bench and none of it was enough for the Knicks to even crack 100 points.

On the flip side, Young scored 27 points on 9-of-21 shooting, shot 4-of-14 from three and only took five free throw attempts, Bogdan Bogdanovic only scored 12 points, Hunter scored just five points and the Hawks still won by 17 points.

This is obviously hugely concerning for the Knicks and it’s hard to see, other than a 40-plus game from Randle in Game 5, how they can keep up with the Hawks offensively — home or away.

“We’ve got to fix this,” said Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau via the Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post. “And we’ve got to fix it fast.”

“Everything is on the table now,” added Thibodeau. “Give us what you have.”

Despite his struggles, Randle is still optimistic about the series.

“I like our chances,” Julius Randle said, before editing himself: “I love our chances.”

For someone who is currently shooting 27% on the series, perhaps Randle shouldn’t be so optimistic, but on the flip side, what else is he supposed to/going to say?

From that same New York Post article, there’s a larger, deeper-stemmed problem for the Knicks going forward, now trailing 3-1 in the series.

If the hard feelings translate to a better performance Wednesday, remember them. If it turns out it was one final flare shot into a dark sky, remember that, too. The Knicks face steep odds and steeper history here. NBA teams, all time, are 13-for-260 when facing a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven. The Knicks are 0-for-13; eight of those times they expired immediately, in Game 5.

Indeed, the Knicks are very much against the odds now.

For the Hawks, their focus is on Game 5, knowing that their toughest challenge — closing the series — is ahead of them, not behind them.

“As I told our guys, this game will be the hardest game of the series, to close a team out,” said McMillan of Game 5. “We know they’re going to come and they’re going to fight, this will be the hardest game of the series. I expect it to be physical, I expect both teams to come with urgency in this next game.”

“The last one to get is going to be the toughest,” echoed Young. “We know they’re probably going to be a little more physical, be more aggressive, play with a lot more energy but, for us, we’ve got to do the same thing. We can’t be complacent with what we’ve done at home, we’ve got to bring even more energy on the road.”

The Hawks were, honestly, quite poor in their offense at times in the first half. Heading back to a hostile Madison Square Garden against a team with their backs very much against the wall and facing elimination, the Hawks will have to play better than they did at times during Game 4.

“We’ll have to play better for sure,” said Bogdanovic of Game 5. “They’re going to play better, they’re going to play more physical. We have to be ready for that. The last closing game is the toughest game of the series. 3-1, 3-0 doesn’t matter how much you’re up, the closing game is the closing game.”

The Hawks (leading 3-1) are back in action on Wednesday night as the series shifts back to New York, where the Hawks will get their first crack to close out the series. Having already won in New York in Game 1 (and knowing they probably should have won in Game 2), in addition to coming off of two consecutive victories in the series, the Hawks should feel confident that they can close out the series on Wednesday.

It will be a fascinating test for both teams in very different situations.

Until next time...