NBA scouts divided on ‘one for the ages’ Knicks-Hawks series

new york knicks, julius randle

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.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Hawks interim coach fined $25K for ‘asserting NBA’s bias towards Knicks’

Atlanta Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan is in hot water following his controversial comments about the league and the New York Knicks on his zoom call with reporters on Wednesday.

NBA meted McMillan a $25,000 fine on Thursday in what was termed as “detrimental public comments asserting bias by the NBA relating to the 2020-21 Playoffs.”

This stems from McMillan saying the league wants the Knicks to be in the playoffs. The Hawks interim coach has included this message in his pep talk with his team.

“Absolutely, I’ve talked about that to the team a lot. Basically, I’ve gone as far as saying the league wants this,” McMillan said on Wednesday. “They need this, New York, this is a big market for the league, and New York has been out of the playoffs for a number of years.”

The Knicks made the playoffs for the first time in eight years, exceeding expectations by taking the fourth seed in the East. The Hawks wound up fifth despite having a similar record after losing the tie-breaker. The Knicks have swept the Hawks this season.

“And [Knicks] is a team that our league, they want to see — there’s a huge fan base — and they want to see New York in the playoffs. So, yes, we have talked about that, about the advantages of this situation and some things that we’re going to have to face, going into [Game 1], with everyone picking New York to win and a lot of folks wanting to see New York in the playoffs,” McMillan said.

But despite McMillan’s comments insinuating they are the underdogs, the oddsmakers couldn’t decide who’s the favorite to win the series. Both the Hawks and Knicks are given -110 odds or an implied 52.4% chance to win the series.

Meanwhile, 15 of 18 ESPN’s NBA writers and analysts have picked the Knicks.

“It’s a battle, it’s a challenge, just playing New York, all that comes with it. They’ve had a really good season, and I think the NBA is excited about having them back in the playoffs,” McMillan said.

The Knicks will host Game 1 and Game 2 of the series on Sunday and Wednesday with an expected 15,000 home crowd, which the team billed as the largest indoor event since the pandemic.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo