Too close to call!
That’s how NBA scouts view the New York Knicks-Atlanta Hawks series that will begin Sunday in a 15,000-packed Madison Square Garden.
The Knicks have swept the Hawks in the regular season but throw that record away from the window, as Tom Thibodeau said.
“It’s going to be really, really an interesting series. Not a lot of playoff experience on either side. I think the offense of Atlanta is probably a little more consistent than the offense of the New York Knicks. They have a lot of offensive weapons. But the grittiness and toughness and the defense of New York maybe can neutralize some of that,” said Michael Vandegarde, a former Philadelphia 76ers scout for 18 years, told Empire Sports Media on a phone call.
Both teams have ended their long playoff drought this season. The Knicks bucked the odds to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2013, capturing the fourth seed in Thibodeau’s first season with the team. The Hawks, on the other hand, had a coaching change midseason that propelled them to the fifth seed in the East after a slow start. Atlanta’s interim coach Nate McMillan had guided the Hawks to a 27-11 record since taking over from Lloyd Pierce, who was fired after a 14-20 start with a spate of injuries in the roster.
“I believe this Knicks vs. Hawks series will be one for the ages,” said Tony Coleman, a freelance NBA scout, in an email.
“Thibs and (Nate) McMillan both are defensive-minded coaches, respectively, at heart and will present unpredictable strategies to throw the other off their game plan. Two tremendously talented teams playing at another level this season — turning around the direction of the organization in New York’s case, and Atlanta trying to make a statement of being a team in the Eastern Conference to reckon with and not to be looked upon as an easy opponent.”
Another active NBA scout said that the key to this first-round matchup would boil down to execution. The Eastern Conference scout, who preferred not to be named, pointed out that this series is a classic matchup between offense and defense.
The Hawks ranked eighth in the Offensive Rating (115.9) and seventh in Net Rating (+4.5) since McMillan took over. On the flip side, the Knicks have transformed into a defensive juggernaut under Thibodeau. They ended the regular season as No.1 in points allowed from 18th last season, No.1 in opponent’s field goal percentage from 17th last season, and first in opponent’s 3-point percentage from 28th last season.
“This is going to be one of the closest series in the first round. The Hawks have solid outside shooters, but the Knicks have the best three-point defense. If every game goes down the wire, New York has more clutch players. They got Derrick Rose, Alec Burks, Julius Randle, and to some extent, RJ Barrett, who’s hit big shots this season. Atlanta has only Trae Young, but he’s new to this playoff environment, and maybe Danilo Gallinari and Lou Williams, but Lou shrunk in big moments against the Denver Nuggets in last year’s playoffs,” said the Eastern Conference scout.
Vandegarde expects a competitive series with both teams grinding out to the “last 8, 6 minutes of the game.”
“Who has a little more composure? Who gets higher-quality shots will play a big role in who will win this series,” Vandegarde said.
The biggest headache for the Knicks in this series is Young, who torched them with 24.7 points and 12.0 assists in their three matchups this season. For Vandegarde, who’s currently consulting for multiple NBA teams, the Memphis Grizzlies-Golden State Warriors play-in game could provide a blueprint for the Knicks on defending Young but with a caveat.
“It will be interesting to see what Thibs does [on Young]. I think it was interesting watching the game last night how Memphis guarded Stephen Curry. [Memphis] threw many double teams at him, and the supporting cast couldn’t make enough plays. Atlanta has a lot more offensive firepower and weapons than the rest of Golden State does,” Vandegarde said.
“I think you could double Trae and get the ball out of his hands, but Atlanta has three-point shooters, slashers, they got offensive rebounders. If you do that, the three-point shooting of Atlanta is a huge concern,” Vandegarde warned.
Coleman, a six-year pro scout who has done live scouting for TPG Sports Group (NBA Summer League) and behind-the-scenes work for a top Eastern Conference team in the past, also shares the same view on defending Young. But he wants the Knicks’ primary defender to be bigger and quicker.
“The best way to guard Trae, in my opinion, is to put a bigger guard on him with a quickness that will be as physical as possible on him. In addition, I would run and jump him with a second defender the minute he crosses the half-court line. In this case, he will have to pass. As a result, the ball is no longer in his hands, minimizing the dribble penetration, kick-outs, and lobs to Capela,” Coleman offered.
Thibodeau revealed earlier this week that he’s been contemplating on using Frank Ntilikina to shadow Young in the series. The embattled Elfrid Payton could remain as the starter, but his token minutes could be further reduced. But to Payton’s credit, he has been effective against Young when he’s the primary defender. Young has only scored two points on 2-of-8 shooting and dished out only two assists against a single turnover in the 14 minutes he was matched up against Payton, according to NBA.com.
Young’s penchant for baiting a foul is also a cause of concern for the Knicks. But Coleman said the Knicks could limit Young’s effectiveness by making him work harder on defense.
“Keep him off the foul line by limiting being in scenarios to foul him. Be relentless about denying him access to the ball while wearing him down over the course of the game with physical play ongoing. Make Atlanta play on one side of the court — not allowing ball reversal to keep Trae at bay, so to speak. Make him play defense. Post him up, make him run off a lot of P/R action to wear him down through physical contact and aggressiveness,” Coleman added.
Meanwhile, a Western Conference scout expects Randle to continue tormenting the Hawks in this series. Randle is averaging 37.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 6.7 assists against Atlanta this season. He dropped 40 and 44 points on the Hawks in their last two wins.
While De’Andre Hunter’s return could boost the Hawk’s defense, the NBA scout couldn’t see a single Atlanta player who could match up well with Randle. Even last year with a healthy Hunter, Randle was unstoppable. The Knicks’ main engine had two monster double-doubles (35 points, 18 rebounds, and 33 points, 11 rebounds) in 2020.
“Their only chance is to double him,” the Western Conference scout said. “So it’s going to be important for the Knicks’ outside shooters to be sharp and consistent throughout the series.”
The Knicks are the only team in the league that ranked in the top 10 in 3-point percentage (39.2%, third), but in the bottom 10 in the percentage of their shots that came from 3-point range (34.7%, 24th), according to NBA.com. But they have six players who shot 40 percent from deep.
In many ways, both coaches — Thibodeau and McMillan mirror their teams’ bid in this year’s playoffs. Thibodeau has been demonized for his bitter ending in Minnesota. A playoff success with a young core in New York can absolve that if their surprising regular-season run hasn’t done that yet. Same with McMillan, who is out to put his first-round failures with the Indiana Pacers behind him with this fresh start with the Hawks.
“Thibs is a coach of the Year candidate if he’s not gonna win it. Nate has done a good job after taking it over,” Vandegarde said. And I think that’s everything you could ask for from a coach of the year, but ever since Nate took over, Atlanta has been great as well. I think they’re both extremely quality coaches and quality people.”
The Hawks were expected to make the playoffs with several additions of veteran players to their young core, but it took McMillan to unlock their potential. The Knicks’ turnaround is one of the biggest stories this season.
“I’m not sure if there’s a really big edge from either one guy. I think it’s gonna play out on the players on the court — how the two teams will handle the playoffs atmosphere and intensity. I think that’s the big key. Can Julius (Randle), who has never been to the playoffs, can mimic what he’s done the whole year? Can RJ (Barrett) step up? Can (Trae) Young do it? Can Kevin Huerter do it? Those guys don’t have any playoff experience. Can these guys bring their A-game throughout the series,” Vandegarde said.
Coleman picked the Knicks to win the series owing to their defense. The Western Conference scout also sees the Knicks as a slight favorite.
“Nothing against Nate but Thibs’ brilliance will come out on top in this series,” the Western Conference scout said.
The Eastern Conference scout and Vandegarde, on the other hand, are picking the Hawks because they believe Atlanta is equipped with more firepower.
“I’m excited about the series. I think it can go either way. I don’t think it’ll be a shock in either direction. But if I had to choose, I’d pick the Hawks,” Vandegarde said.
Vandegarde explained that Atlanta has more than enough firepower to overwhelm the Knicks’ defense.
“In the playoffs, it seems to be easier to take one or two players and limit their offensive opportunities. If they can take away Julius (Randle), there’s a lot less on the table for the Knicks offensively,” Vandegarde said.
“Obviously, RJ Barrett has been great, and Derrick Rose has been great. But that’s really the end of the offense. I know they shot it well from 3. But they’re not shooting a ton of 3s. That’s part of their game, but it’s not a major weapon like it is for the Hawks. I just think Bogdan Bogdanovic, (Kevin) Huerter, their three-point ability, John Collins, (Clint) Capela’s offensive rebounding and scoring, bringing Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari off the bench who have a major experience in the NBA as well as playoff experience and their offensive abilities, I just think in the end that will probably win out,” Vandegarde concluded.
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