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Hawks prevail in Game 5, send Knicks on vacation to advance to second round

The Hawks got the job done to eliminate the Knicks’ season

2021 NBA Playoffs - Atlanta Hawks v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks dispatched the New York Knicks at the first time of asking as the Hawks took Game 5 in Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night to advance to the second round, 103-89.

Trae Young closed the Knicks out with 36 points (including 13-of-15 from the free throw line) and nine assists while De’Andre Hunter added 15 points. For the Knicks, Julius Randle scored 23 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. RJ Barrett added 17 points.

In a closeout game on the road, the Hawks struggled in the first half especially from three-point range and this was the key for the Hawks and why they didn’t blow the Knicks out of the water as they shot 3-of-17 from three in the first half. The Hawks took a five-point lead into halftime and that was despite the Hawks shooting 3-of-17 from three.

The first half was a chippy affair, as you would expect in an elimination game. Julius Randle was perhaps fortunate not to see a flagrant 1 for his elbow around Onyeka Okongwu’s face, Taj Gibson did see a flagrant 1 for his near-airborne shove on De’Andre Hunter (who was not happy with the play from Gibson) before a mini-skirmish at the end of the first half broke out as Solomon Hill got in the grill of Nerlens Noel.

The third quarter was a chippy one too and the Hawks showed fantastic mental fortitude as some calls didn’t go their way, Nerlens Noel was trying to get himself punched with some of his plays and the Hawks themselves finally established a double-digit lead despite all of that, and on the road in a tough environment.

The Hawks didn’t shoot well in the third quarter, 9-of-25 from the field and 2-of-10 from three for 22 points. As has been the case all series long, the Knicks somehow shot worse: 5-of-18 from the field, 2-of-7 from three for 15 points.

The Hawks missed a decent opportunity at the end of the third quarter to extend their lead a little further and every little burst the Knicks had in the fourth, the Hawks had an answer for and they took care of a lead when it mattered most. Behind 18 points in the fourth quarter by Young — including huge three-pointers — the Hawks were able to close out the Knicks and win their first playoff series since 2016 against the Boston Celtics.

I asked this question in the Peachtree Hoops slack and I’m interested in the general consensus now that it has happened... Which was the better closeout win: Game 6 in Boston in 2016 or Game 5 in New York in 2021? Curiosity.

Usually, I like to list the quotes here and then perhaps look at film but we’ll do things a little differently today. I have no one particular thing to look at film on today but multiple items worth mentioning from Game 5.

I want to start with De’Andre Hunter, who scored 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting from the field. Hunter found himself guarded by Derrick Rose and I loved the confidence from Hunter to just shoot over him, such as this possession:

And again in the second half, Hunter hits the face-up J:

Hunter made other timely baskets too, including this offensive rebound and floater to put the Hawks up by 12 points in the latter stages of the third quarter:

For his final basket, Hunter hits the dagger three-pointer, the one that called game and series:

Love seeing the confidence from Hunter to let it fly but especially those shots inside over Rose on a mismatch.

Okongwu made a stellar impact on this game in his short time on the court (six minutes) but especially in the third quarter which helped the Hawks hold over in those minutes that Clint Capela sat on the bench.

Off of the miss from Danilo Gallinari (one of many), Okongwu is snap to the offensive rebound and creates an extra possession for the Hawks:

This extra possession created by Okongwu indirectly led to a big three-pointer when Okongwu releases the offensive rebound to Hunter, who draws a foul which leads to a timeout. Out of said timeout, Young hits a big three to extend the Hawks’ lead to 14 points:

Okongwu wasn’t done on the offensive glass however as he comes steaming in from behind to beat the Knicks to the rebound off of Kevin Huerter’s outside miss to score on the follow to put the Hawks up 16 points:

Perhaps more surprisingly was Okongwu’s impact on the defensive end in his time on the court in Game 5.

As the shot clock ticks under 10 seconds, Alec Burks looks to come off of the Taj Gibson screen which does its job and takes the defender (Huerter) out of the equation. However, Okongwu steps up and does a great job contesting Burks’ shot at the end of the clock after bobbling the dribble somewhat:

To end the third quarter, Immanuel Quickley drives by Gallinari on the perimeter and is steaming towards the rim but is met by Okongwu to swat the shot emphatically:

This was probably the best Okongwu has looked in his young NBA career and I include that Houston regular season-finale which, in reality, did not mean a lot in comparison to this game in terms of competition. Whether that can continue in the second round remains to be seen but this is a huge building block for Okongwu, a game the Hawks can reference in his development as to the impact he may be able to have in the future.

The Hawks, honestly, played a very messy game offensively. The basketball on both sides was ugly often, the Hawks’ three-point shooting was horrid (9-of-34) and multiple Hawks struggled (Gallinari scored one point on 0-of-7 shooting, Bogdan Bogdanovic was 1-of-7 from three and even Young struggled shooting the ball as he shot 10-of-28 and 3-of-11 from three).

All that said, the Hawks still won by 14 points on the road.

The Knicks’ offensive struggles continued, and when it looked like Julius Randle was going to have his best game of the series percentage-wise, Randle ended up shooting 8-of-21 (after shooting 5-of-11 in the first half). Derrick Rose finally slowed down, shooting 3-of-11 for just six points and looked exhausted at times.

“I had some knick-knack injuries last game, got hit in the knee. Just had to play smart, tried to give it a go, and it just didn’t feel right and Thibs decided not to play me in the fourth,” said Rose via Peter Botte of the New York Times.

RJ Barrett scored 17 points but on 5-of-14 shooting from the field, Reggie Bullock hit four threes in the first half, Immanuel Quickley scored 11 points as he added a spark in the second half, Alec Burks scored 12 points off of the bench...and none of it was enough on a night the Hawks struggled from outside the arc.

Had the Hawks actually been able to connect on threes like they did in Games 3 and would have looked an awful lot worse for the Knicks than it ultimately was.

For the Hawks however, they advance and Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan reflected on the Hawks’ continued growth in protecting and maintaining fourth quarter leads and finishing games. Now, they’ve just finished a series.

“They continue to show growth,” said McMillan of his group. “This closeout game we knew would be the hardest game of the season and of this series for us. These guys came in, they kept their focus tonight, they stuck with the game-plan, they believed they could do it and they did it. They continue to show growth. Each game we’ve been talking about the finish, for a long time now. At the beginning of the season they weren’t finishing games, we started to finish games. Tonight, we finished a series which was a big step for this team. Their focus for 48 minutes, coming into a hostile situation, keeping their poise and executing the game-plan just shows a lot of growth with this group.”

“I saw a lot of focus,” echoed Young. “I saw a lot of determination, guys really locked in and focused on our mission. Our mission was to win the series, it wasn’t to win a game. We had our goals and what we had laid out in front of us and we went out and did it. I’m happy we were able to finish the series.”

Though the Hawks are advancing — as satisfying as winning is to the Hawks — no one is getting too far ahead of themselves.

“It’s a good feeling,” said Collins of advancing to round two. “My first time at the winning end of something like this, my first experience in the playoffs. I’m trying not to get too excited or too overwhelmed. Obviously I understand there’s more work ahead but trying to find all the positives that we did and were able to do in this series for us to move on and appreciate that and allow it to make it better.”

Young in particular was strong in his comments with regards not being satisfied with one playoff series win.

“I’m not satisfied,” said Young of his emotions. “I feel good, winning feels good, it feels better. I feel a lot better because we’re winning and I’m such a competitor, I want to win so much that this feels good but I’m not satisfied. I’m not satisfied with just getting to the second round, I’m not satisfied with where we are. I know what this team is capable of. We have a squad and a team that can surprise a lot of people but we’re not going to surprise ourselves because we know what we’re capable of.”

If you’re a Hawks fan, you love to hear this from Young, and with Joel Embiid’s injury issues, who truly knows what the Hawks are capable of here in the series to come but there’ll be plenty of time to discuss a Hawks-Sixers series coming up.

Prior to Game 5, Capela made some waves in the media when he mentioned how he wanted to ‘send the Knicks on vacation’ when discussing the Knicks’ physical play that he felt went too far in Game 4 with elbows flying.

The Knicks tried not to take the bait and things were more amicable than I thought between Capela and the Knicks (if anything, John Collins and Hunter ended up on the floor far more often, Collins in particular) and while McMillan made it known he didn’t want his side to play that game — instead, to let the play on the court do the talking — he believed Capela backed his talk up.

“We talked about that,” said McMillan of Capela’s comments ahead of Game 5. “I’ve always felt (that you) allow your game to speak for you, you allow the scoreboard to speak for you. Clint made some comments. What we said was ‘We got to have his back.’ I thought our guys tonight stepped up and his back. I thought Clint had a game to back up some of the things that he said. We don’t play the game in the press. I didn’t feel that New York needed that to be motivated to play but it was said. For us, we needed to keep our focus tonight, we needed to be the aggressors. Play the game that we have been playing and just finish the series, we wanted to finish it here tonight and not relax and try to finish it in Atlanta. I thought our guys kept their focus tonight, we were disciplined in our game-plan. They beat a really good New York team.”

While McMillan may not have seemingly been a big fan of Capela’s comments, the players got behind Capela.

“I loved it,” said John Collins of Capela’s performance. “Obviously big talk on his end to go out and put the team on the line in a sense but we had his back and we knew he was going to come out and give it 100%. I really had no issues with it, I just wanted to come out and do what he said: send them on vacation, send them home and we did that.”

For Capela himself, he was obviously asked a number of questions relating to his comments but he stood by his comments based on his belief in his team and their ability on the court and what they had consistently showed throughout the series.

“I was definitely believing in my group, in me and our team and we did a good job,” said Capela on sending the Knicks on vacation. “We came out here thinking that we don’t want to give them anything and we did the job from the start to the end.”

“I was really confident in my group and what we’ve been showing these last few games,” added Capela on his comments. “I meant it and I knew that I would not be wrong about it. We showed the last four games that we have that character, that type of team that I believe would be capable of coming here and get the win and we did it.”

And just to rub salt in the Knicks’ wounds, Capela was asked if he had any vacation suggestions for the Knicks.

“Nah, they can go wherever they want,” said Capela. “Out of our way, that’s all I’m asking for.”

Unlike RJ Barrett, Capela delivered on his words with a great performance.

With the shooting struggles in the first half for the Hawks, Capela scored 12 first half points on 5-of-5 shooting to go with nine rebounds and two blocks while registering a game-high +12. Capela was the Hawks’ MVP of the first half and it wasn’t even close.

“He’s the anchor for us,” said McMillan of Capela. “Defensively, he’s been the guy all season that has been cleaning up our mistakes, our breakdowns on the perimeter. He did a really good job of shadowing Randle and their ball-handlers attacking the basket, did an excellent job of executing the game-plan, and then he had to rebound the ball. We want our guys to come in and help on the boards but Clint has been doing a really solid job rebounding the basketball, we knew that was big against this team, they’re physical in the paint. He held his ground against Noel and Gibson. That was the difference in the game, we needed to win the hustle game.”

While Capela was the MVP of the first half, the MVP of the second half was Young.

Young scored 22 points in the second half, including 18 in the fourth quarter but has shown so many other qualities throughout this series, with McMillan praising Young’s leadership and ‘fearlessness.’

“He’s the key,” said McMillan of Young’s leadership in the series. “He’s the guys that establishes our tempo. He’s a fearless player. Every game he brings and leaves everything that he has out on the floor. Tonight, we needed that. We wanted our guys to be the aggressors tonight and it starts with Trae. I thought he did a good job of establishing that tempo early, getting us out and getting us into transition, finding guys on the perimeter. The shot wasn’t falling early in the game but he stuck with it and it started to fall for him in the second half. It really starts with Trae establishing the tempo.”

Young’s numbers in the series speak for themselves:

Young has dealt with a lot in this series: unpleasant crowd chants, spitting, intentional tripping etc but has shown he has incredible mental fortitude to deal with all of that and then some, leading his team to a playoff series victory in his playoff debut.

“I text him before the playoffs started and told him he was built for this time of the season, and he is,” added McMillan of Young. “He’s just built for this time of the season with the confidence that he brings to the floor, his skill-level as far as scoring the basketball and creating opportunities is really tough to game-plan against him. He just has to continue to take what the defense is giving him. I thought he a really good job in this series of managing that out on the floor.”

Young put the icing on all-time individual playoff series in franchise history with a bow after a three-pointer:

“The bow is something I did in high school after hitting a game-winner,” said Young of his bow. “Leading up to this game, I know where we are, I know there’s a bunch of shows in this city and I know what they do when the show is over. That’s pretty much what it was.”

‘I know what they do when the show is over.’ A money quote: the show is over.

Obviously, the Hawks don’t advance without Young, but McMillan made sure to point out that there was more to the series, highlighting Hunter’s impact on the defensive end guarding both Randle and Rose.

“This was a team effort,” said McMillan. “It doesn’t happen if we don’t have our other guys playing well. De’Andre had the assignment of guarding Randle this entire series. That was the difference. We didn’t have him during the season when we were playing against New York. We put him on Randle to guard Randle, when Rose got hot we switched him on Rose so he had to guard both of those guys and he did a solid job of making them work, keeping them in front, not giving them anything easy. It really started with him.

“This was definitely a team effort, with Bogi playing well, John — other than the one game where he got into foul trouble — we had to find ways to keep him on the floor. The way we wanted to do that was not allow him to guard Randle early, put ‘Dre on him. I thought ‘Dre did a nice job of challenging every catch, every dribble and getting underneath these guys. I thought our pressure was good from every body. Trae put up some big numbers but defensively our team defense was really good. I thought we got pressure on the ball, our weakside was really aggressive and did a good job of cutting off half of the floor and forcing them to shoot over the top.”

Hunter’s impact in this series on the defensive end shows how much they missed him for so much of the regular season and he did a phenomenal job this series defensively.

McMillan himself also deserves a lot of credit in Game 5. He went away from his all-bench lineup in the first quarter as well as getting Young back in the game early in the fourth (playing 41 minutes in total).

In closing, the Hawks were more than deserving to win this series. Offensively, they were a cut above the Knicks, several cuts above for that matter. When you think about it, the Hawks could, and probably should, have swept the Knicks — they really did let Game 2 slip away from their grasp but they had the scoring potential to win all four of those games to sweep. Still, the Hawks deserve a lot of praise for closing the series on the road in a hostile environment.

The Hawks advance to face the Philadelphia 76ers in Round 2, with Game 1 taking place on Sunday.

With many experts and analysts siding with the Knicks over the Hawks (and with those predictions falling flat on their face), Atlanta hopes to have put some of the national media on alert.

“Hopefully we’re showing the world — as I said, the business is not done — hopefully what we’ve been able to do in this series lets people we’re serious,” said Collins. “We have a real squad full of guys who can compete on both ends. You really have to bring your A game to beat us. We want to play the best basketball we can.”

Until next round...