An NBA team is normally not going to have much of a chance to win a postseason game when its best player has an off night. But when that does occur, it sure makes winning a playoff series a lot easier if that team can find another way to gut out a win.
The fourth-seeded New York Knicks almost made that happen inside a raucous Madison Square Garden on Sunday night until MSG’s latest playoff villain, Trey Young, had other ideas.
Scoring 13 of his game-high 32 points over the final 6:43, Young’s floater in the lane with 0.9 seconds left gave the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks a thrilling 107-105 win in a very entertaining Game 1 in the NBA Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
Before that, it was the Knicks’ complements to Randle — especially their bench — who brought New York to the brink of a victory in their first playoff game in eight years despite Randle being held to just 15 points on 6-of-23 shooting.
Randle’s struggles were a big departure from his output of 28 points on 11-for-19 shooting, 44 points on 14-for-22 shooting, and 40 points on 11-for-21 shooting, respectively, during the Knicks’ regular season, three-game sweep over the Hawks.
Nevertheless, New York’s bench, buoyed by the electricity provided by 15,000 boisterous fans (a big increase from the Covid-induced 2,000-fan regular-season limit) was more than up to the task.
Among the Knicks’ starters, it wasn’t just Randle who was struggling at the outset, as New York started just 2-for-14 from the field. As a whole, that starting group ironically shot the same 6-for-23 in the first half that Randle shot for the game. New York trailed, 24-16, after going just 7-for-26 in the opening quarter.
Sparked by their reserves, the Knicks closed to within 52-50 at halftime, with New York’s bench accounting for 34 points on 15-for-22 shooting by that point.
Going on a 15-3 run, the Knicks took their biggest lead, 73-66, with 1:12 left in the third quarter, but longtime bucket-getter Lou Williams (13 points in 13 bench minutes) hit a jumper and a 3-pointer over the final 32 seconds of the period to shrink Atlanta’s deficit to a more manageable 73-71 entering the final stanza.
Although starting shooting guard R.J. Barrett finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds, it was reserve guards Alec Burks (playoff career-high 27 points in 26 minutes), Derrick Rose (17 points), and rookie Immanuel Quickley (10 points) who primarily made up for Randle’s poor game while keeping their team in the contest.
Burks, in particular, made one clutch shot after another while scoring 18 of New York’s 32 fourth-quarter points, to finish a sizzling 9-for-13 from the floor. However, Burks missed the second of two free throws with 4:27 left, nearly a minute after Randle did the same.
While those two misses ultimately provided the final margin for the Hawks, it was an open baseline jumper that Burks missed with a chance to break a 103-103 tie with 35.5 seconds left that cost the Knicks a lot down the stretch.
That opened the door for Young to draw a very questionable touch foul on Barrett and sink two foul shots with 28.6 seconds left before Rose tied the game for a final time on a floating jumper with 10.2 seconds remaining.
Including those two free throws, nine of Young’s final 13 points came at the foul line. Before that, Atlanta — which ranked second in the league this year with 24.2 free throw attempts per game, had attempted just three free throws (making two) over the first 41:17.
Offsetting that anomaly from what the Hawks are used to at the foul line was the Knicks (who ranked second in the NBA in 3-point accuracy, at 39.2 percent) going just 10-for-30 (33.3 percent) from 3-point range.
Putting in defensive specialist, Frank Ntilikina, after Atlanta called timeout with 9.8 seconds left, didn’t help New York as Ntilikina got too close to teammate Taj Gibson, allowing Young to get around Ntilikina at the 3-point line and into the lane to arc a seven-foot game-winner over the outstretched arm of Randle, who tried to come over and help in vain.
“We just wanted to get the ball stopped, so it was sort of a broken play,” head coach Tom Thibodeau explained. “[Young’s] very good at changing directions… he’s a great player.”
Trying to avoid giving away strategies to try to slow down Atlanta’s top scorer for the rest of the series, Rose simply acknowledged of Young, “He’s always going to be a tough cover.”
In a move that made many recall former Knick-killer Reggie Miller flashing a “choke sign” after Miller led Indiana to a big comeback win by scoring 25 third-quarter points at MSG during the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, Young mocked the Garden crowd with a “shush” signal after making his game-winning shot and later commented that he was motivated to silence the Knick faithful after they had earlier directed loud “F— Trae Young!” chants toward the 22-year-old burgeoning, third-year star.
Walking down the tunnel to the visiting locker room, a smiling Young added, “It got real quiet in there. They’re still yelling now. I don’t care. Next one.”
Of course, the Knicks had a different take on their home crowd.
Rose said, “It was great, everything that we expected and probably a little bit more. They were into every play. We heard them throughout the entire game… their presence, we felt tonight.”
“The fans are great,” Barrett added. “It was amazing in here, better than I could ever have imagined — a lot of fun… I definitely wished we would have got the win but it’s a long series. We’ll bounce back.”
While the Knicks will certainly need Randle (who made his first All-Star team this season) to play better in the series, Burks believes that New York’s collective depth (as shown in Game 1) is its best asset.
“Give credit to [the Hawks],” Burks said. “Young hit a tough shot at the end of the game, but we fought hard. I’m proud of my teammates and our coaching staff. We’ll be ready for the next game. The strength of our team is our depth. We’ve got a lot of players from top to bottom that can produce at any time, and I know it because I see these guys in practice every day. So I know we have a deep team.”
Very true, but the Knicks very likely won’t be able to win the series without Randle returning to the form he showed for much of the regular season.
Discussing Atlanta’s approach with containing Randle, Thibodeau said, “They loaded up on him pretty good. We anticipated that. I think he knew going in that it would be like this. So, if he’s getting double-teamed like that, he’s dealt with it all season long. So, just trust the pass.”
Rose said of Randle, “I’m very confident [he’ll play better next game]. We know what type of player he is. He’s a hard worker, he loves the game, he’s a student of the game. So, when we look at film, he’ll be able to figure it out.”
Echoing his coach on the double teams he faced in Game 1, Randle said, “I knew they were going to do that. I still liked the shots and opportunities I got. I’ll be able to look at the film and go back and adjust. I’m not making excuses. I’ve got to be better and I will be better.”
Randle and the Knicks will have three days to figure how to do that with Game 2 of the series slated for Wednesday night at the Garden.