The Knicks have been underdog all season, so it’s no surprise that NBA scouts think the Hawks ‘firepower might be too much for the Knicks’ robust defense.
The Knicks own a 3-0 regular-season sweep of Atlanta and have the field advantage, starting with Game 1 on Saturday or Sunday. But the Hawks have superstar playmaker Trae Young surrounded by talented perimeter shooters.
“Will their much-vaunted regular-season defense be such a big factor against a very talented Hawks team on offense?” an Eastern Conference scout told the Post. “I choose Atlanta. I’ve been a firm believer in the Hawks since Nate [McMillan] took over. It is the most talented team, especially offensive.
“Philosophically, I think having more playoff-type offensive weapons – guys making their shot – gives them an advantage over an offensive team that relies on defense like the Knicks.
Of course, the beauty of the playoffs is in the eye of the beholder. There is a faction that swears championship defense and rebound, although that philosophy has developed with the prominence of 3-point shooting.
The Knicks led the league in defense by 3 points (33.7%). Atlanta has 3-point snipers in Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, upstate New York product Kevin Huerter and Lou Williams by the trade deadline. In addition, John Collins once again became an aspiring star as a “Stretch 4”.
While Hawks players have limited playoff experience, so do the Knicks, driven by Julius Randle. The Knicks forward will play his first playoff game this weekend, in his seventh season. Randle averaged 37 points against Atlanta in three games, with two games of 40 points.
“The biggest concern is always who else will score late besides Randle,” said the East scout.
As impressive a second season as RJ Barrett has woven it, the 20-year-old swingman hasn’t always been a late-game sniper and has a streaky side.
“RJ has had bad first halves much of the season,” said another talent assessor. “It might catch up with them. Randle and Barrett, will they hit the winner in a tight playoff game? We do not know yet. I didn’t like what they looked like in the last five minutes against Boston [Sunday] with everything on the line. I bet Trae would [excel]. He’s fearless and Collins is a weapon people don’t talk about enough. The Knicks can’t count on a rookie, Immanuel Quickley, to bail them out late.
The Knicks, fourth seed (41-31), have been questioned – and resilient – all season. So that’s another example. But it should be noted in the last outing against the Hawks on April 22, with McMillan training, the Knicks were behind the Hawks by eight points by the end of the third quarter. It was then that Young sprained his ankle after colliding with Knicks center Norvel Pelle, which challenged Young’s float.
The Knicks rallied to win in overtime with Young in the locker room. Young still finished with 20 points and 14 assists in 30 minutes. The Hawks scored 39 points in the first quarter of this contest.
The Hawks were a different team under Lloyd Pierce, who coached against the Knicks in the first two games.
“It’s a young, hungry group with a great coach,” a Western Conference scout said of Atlanta. “[McMillan] gets them to play hard and pay attention to detail. And they [have] shooters. The Knicks are rock hard, play tough, and are always in the games.
If the rebound matches, the Knicks face Atlanta’s Clint Capela, who struggled with foot issues last month but is a monster on the boards. Not having a Mitchell Robinson center for this series could take a heavy toll. Capela played 25-22 in the last game. Nerlens Noel is a great shot blocker, but he and save center Taj Gibson lack volume and size when facing big crosses.
“Noel is going to have problems with Capela if he’s healthy,” said the NBA talent assessor. “Noel gets pushed around by bigger players for the rebounds. I would worry about it.
Another team manager believes the Knicks will come away with the confidence of having beaten the Hawks three times.
“I think playing the Hawks puts them in a favorite position because of the regular season, but they should be careful,” said the executive. “The Hawks have a young and dynamic team.”