Before the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks stepped out on the court two weeks ago, many had high expectations of this series being one of the best matchups in the first round (including me).
The story was set up perfectly: two up-and-coming, young, inexperienced teams playing against each other in two of the most popular cities in the United States. The NBA couldn’t have asked for anything better to kick off the postseason.
Though this seemed like the perfect matchup, many experts had the Knicks winning the series. In an ESPN poll, 14 of the staff experts had the Knicks winning, while only two picked the Hawks. Whether those predictions were based off the Knicks sweeping the regular season series, or Randle looking unstoppable in those matchups, not many media people (outside of Atlanta) gave the Hawks a chance.
It was evident that they were underdogs coming into the series in the eyes of most of the national media, but as the games went on, one thing began to ring true: Atlanta was clearly the better team all along.
In fact, they played like they had been here before.
Outside from the inexperience on the team, the veterans played an important role throughout the series. Clint Capela has made numerous deep playoff runs in his career with the Houston Rockets, so he knows what it takes to get through a grueling series. Sometimes it’s going to take some trash talk to motivate a team, and maybe that’s what Capela was doing before Game 5. It didn’t matter because he backed it up, finishing the close-out win with 14 points, 15 rebounds, and two blocks. Capela averaged 13.4 points, 10 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks in the series.
Though it was Young who put the dagger in the Knicks in Game 1, Lou Williams came in and saved the Hawks at the end of the third quarter, when it seemed like the Knicks were potentially going to pull away.
In Williams short time on the Hawks, he showed numerous times throughout the second half of the season that he could get going at any point in the game. If it wasn’t for the small scoring burst he provided, things could have shaped out differently to start the series.
Danilo Gallinari and Solomon Hill, also players with playoff experience, played big roles later into the series. After being in a shooting slump the first two games, Gallinari found his rhythm in games three and four. Hill on the other hand, was mostly playing enforcer for the Hawks as the Knicks began to take their “physical play” to another level. A level that’s not considered basketball.
Solomon Hill throws a shoulder in Nerlens Noel's back for a foul and knocks him down, then offers his hand to pick him up off the ground. Then he pulls it back. No congeniality in playoff basketball. pic.twitter.com/dYf1IFUehL— Mike Vorkunov (@MikeVorkunov) May 28, 2021
Solomon Hill, the unsung hero we didn’t know we needed in Round One pic.twitter.com/hjT1OgDg4y— Will Heñson (@whenson29) June 3, 2021
In a hostile environment, the Hawks veterans made sure to leave their impact on the team, but it was the young players that really shined.
In what was Young’s first playoff appearance, he showed throughout the series that he was built for this moment, something that Nate McMillan texted him before the playoffs began. The Knicks had one of the best defenses in the league, and Young shredded them with every move in his arsenal. Even when it seemed like the Knicks threw everything at him, he still found a way to make a good play.
Lots of drive and kick threes for the Hawks in this game... this is probably the first preference of every NBA coach as how they want to see their teams create looks from three... pic.twitter.com/c31UPiKDwt— Glen Willis (@willis_glen) May 29, 2021
From Game 1 when he sinked the last second floater to seal the win, to Game 5 where he hit a deep three and took a bow to the Knicks crowd right after, Young controlled the series from start to finish. Despite the explicit chants, extracurricular activities from the fans, and physical play from the Knicks, Young stayed cool and collected. He embraced it all and had the last laugh.
The Hawks can say that they lived up to their part of the bargain for the series, but the same could not be said for the Knicks. Not only did the Hawks gash the Knicks defense, but they did a good job defensively as well. Coming into the series the Knicks were shooting 39% from three as a team, which ranked No.3 in the league. In the first round, the Hawks held them to 34% as a team.
In the playoffs, experienced teams lock down on the defensive side when it matters. The Hawks weren’t one of the best defensive teams in the league during the regular season, but are currently No.3 in defensive rating for the postseason.
As one star player made a name for himself under the bright lights, Julius Randle did not have a happy welcome to his first playoff appearance. The NBA’s Most Improved Player looked uncomfortable all series; some of that was due to the Hawks defensive strategy, and the rest was Randle just not being efficient. He shot 30% from the field, and 33% from three.
The Hawks strategy was simple: throw multiple bodies at Randle at all times.
To make matters worse for the Knicks, if your name wasn’t Derrick Rose, there wasn’t much contribution to the team.
De’Andre Hunter had the task of guarding Randle and Rose during most of the series and did a solid job of defending them. He wasn’t the only young Hawks player that played a key role, as Kevin Huerter was probably the biggest X-factor in the series.
Over the course of the season, Huerter has shown growth as a two-way player, and has given the Hawks a boost off the bench when Young sits. He’s been aggressive getting into the driving lane instead of settling for jump shots, and he’s active in passing lanes on defense. Behind Capela, he averaged the second most blocks on the team with 1.4.
John Collins and Bogdan Bogdanovic played solid games as well. Like Hunter and Huerter, they played good defense against their matchups, and were able to force the Knicks into tough shots. They weren’t the best offensively, but the attention that Young brings gave them a lot of open opportunities to make plays.
The biggest takeaway from this series from the Hawks is that everybody played a role, and they played together as a team. For the most part, they opted for the best shot instead of the big shot, got almost every shot they wanted, and played as a collective unit on defense. They didn’t let the Knicks get in their heads, even when at times it looked like that’s all they were trying to do. At the end of the day, the Hawks just had too much offensive talent for the Knicks, and looked like the most prepared team out of the two.
If you watched the Hawks play for the first time this season, you’d probably think that this team had been in this situation before. The truth is, this is a lot of the players first time in the playoffs, but they’d been preparing for this moment all season.