While displaying a bevy of surprising characteristics during an unexpectedly good regular season, perhaps the best one the New York Knicks demonstrated was their resilience. Whether battling through tough periods within certain games or through difficult stretches over course of several contests, the Knicks have repeatedly found ways to bounce back.
They desperately needed to do so again on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, and once again, they came through.
Trailing by as many as 15 points to the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks and down a dozen points after 2½ quarters, fourth-seeded New York more than canceled out earlier Atlanta runs of 11 straight first-quarter points and nine consecutive second-quarter points with a 30-8 surge spanning the third and fourth periods before finishing with a separate 10-1 spurt to win, 101-92, and even the teams’ Eastern Conference quarterfinal series at a game apiece.
Playing in their first playoff series in eight years, the Knicks captured their first postseason victory in the same length of time while avoiding the historically near-impossible prospect of having to join the roughly seven percent of NBA teams that have come back to win a playoff series after trailing 2-0.
Down 57-44 at halftime, New York picked up its game drastically at each end of the floor, outscoring Atlanta 57-35 in the second half, including 43-22 over the final 18 minutes after the Hawks led 70-58.
The turnaround was a collective effort as stifling team defense held Atlanta’s backcourt of Trae Young and Bogdan Bogdanovich to just 14 total points (10 for Young) in the second half after that duo torched the Knicks for a combined 34 points (20 for Young) before intermission.
Offensively, New York had key turnarounds from its two starting forwards when the Knicks needed those the most.
Julius Randle, who one day earlier, was named the league’s Most Improved Player, fittingly flipped the switch after suffering through a poor Game 1 and being mostly silent in the first half of Game 2. After scoring just two points and missing all six of his shots before halftime, Randle scored 13 points on 5-for-10 shooting in the second half. That was complemented by key x-factor Reggie Bullock, who while slowing Young down defensively, scored 12 of his 15 points in the second half while making four of six 3-pointers after missing his only attempt from behind the arc in the first half and missing all five tries from three in Game 1.
With Bullock leading the way, the Knicks went 10-for-21 from 3-point range in the second half after missing 10 of 12 3-pointers prior to halftime.
“He’s an unsung hero on our team,” head coach Tom Thibodeau said of Bullock. “His defense, his shooting, just having more shooting on the floor helps Julius.”
Bullock credited those who got him the ball while recognizing what his shooting did for those around him. “It helped open up lanes for our drivers,” he said. “My teammates were just finding me and I was confident in shooting the basketball tonight.”
Off the bench, point guard Derrick Rose scored a team-high 26 points and helped set the table for New York’s comeback while shooting guard Alec Burks scored nine of his 11 points in the second half as veteran center Taj Gibson (six of his seven rebounds in the second half) and rookie forward Obi Toppin (eight points and three rebounds and a crowd-pleasing lob dunk in 12 minutes) helped spark the Knicks with good energy.
All of that still wasn’t enough to put away the Hawks until late as Atlanta used a final 13-3 push to draw even, 91-91, with 5:06 remaining.
However, the Hawks missed their last eight shots and managed only one free throw the rest of the way as Randle finally provided the kind of leadership New York was seeking from him — but which had been lacking — since the start of the series.
After Rose put the Knicks up for good, 93-91, on a short hook shot with 4:45 left, Randle drew attention in the paint before finding Bullock for a 3-pointer (with 3:26 remaining) on a crisp pass out to the right wing.
Later, Randle again drew a defender to him with a nice move in the lane before dishing to Gibson for a dunk that both fired up the already electric Garden crowd and extended New York’s lead to 98-91 with 1:41 to go.
With 1:13 left, Randle provided a dagger on a nifty Eurostep bucket (off of a Rose assist) that pushed the margin to 100-91.
“I thought as the game went on, [Randle] started to see things better,” Thibodeau said. “He’s commanding a lot of attention, which is opening up other things for us.”
Noting his better play in the second half while still acknowledging the need to improve throughout the series, Randle said, “I tried to make adjustments. I tried to get in the paint to create shots for myself and for others, but I’ve still got to be a lot better.”
Before Randle could help finish things, the Knicks needed a strong start to the second half.
Thibodeau found that by shuffling the lineup and turning to veterans he knows well (from coaching them in Rose’s native Chicago for five years), like usual reserves Rose and Gibson, to start the third quarter.
“I just wanted to change it up,” Thibodeau noted. “I felt like we had to do something different and that’s why you have a bench. [Rose and Gibson] came in and they played great. I wanted to give us a different look and it was a plus. [Those two] have been in a number of playoff games. I think the fact that [they] have been in big games before is a big plus for our team.”
Randle particularly noted what Rose does for New York, especially with significant playoff experience. “He’s amazing,” Randle said. “He’s a highly-skilled player, a high I.Q. player and he’s making the game easy for all of us.”
Settling down the younger Knicks who are getting a taste of playoff basketball for the first time in their respective careers is a role that Rose relishes.
“My job is to let [my teammates] know what I see on the floor and try to calm guys down in situations like [tonight],” Rose said.
Having won in the playoffs before with Rose and Thibodeau, Gibson greatly appreciated being able to do the same for the first time at the Garden as a Brooklyn, NY native.
“It’s so surreal,” Gibson said. “I’m playing with Derrick, who I’ve been playing with [for much of my] career, and now we’re in New York City… this is some magical stuff right now… and it’s an awesome feeling.”
What Gibson and Rose learned under Thibodeau in Chicago has carried over to New York.
“One thing about when you play for a Thibs team, is you’re gonna work,” Gibson said. ”You’re gonna come together, you’re gonna work every day as hard as you can, but along those trials and tribulations, you become a family. You become real tight-knit. You believe in each other. The way Thibs coaches, he brings the whole group together… everybody just works together. It’s just a great atmosphere here and it shows when we play.”
Those types of values paid off in a big way for the Knicks in Game 2.
“We just stayed poised,” Gibson said. “We’ve been in the same position all year long. Nobody believed in us… we just believe in ourselves.
Bullock added, “We were just trying to get back to how we’ve been playing all year, just with our aggressiveness, so we just had to pick it up in the second half and it worked out for us.”
Of course, Thibodeau would like to see more consistency from the start rather than having to rally later.
“I would prefer that wasn’t the case, but that’s sort of the nature of the league,” Thibodeau said. “Whatever your circumstances are, you have to have a will and a determination that you can overcome it. Whatever’s necessary, that’s what you have to do — if it’s five stops in a row, if it’s five scores in a row — and I thought guys made hustle plays, and often times, that’s the difference.”
That, and mainly, defense for a team that led the NBA in points allowed, opponents’ field goal percentage and opponents’ 3-point field goal percentage during the regular season.
“That’s what he hang our hat on… on the defensive end,” Bullock said.
Turning offense into defense and playing the right way offensively after making defensive stops also worked in Game 2.
Thibodeau said, “It started with the defense and then we started sharing the ball and spreading it out, and we got some good looks, and made shots.”
But refusing to give up, as New York has rarely done all season, is what gave the Knicks the belief that they’d send the series to Atlanta tied instead of facing a nearly insurmountable task of having to win four times in five games.
“Last game, it felt like we weren’t in tune the way we were supposed to [be],” Rose said. To come back, and to win, it shows a lot. It shows fight.”
Randle added, “Throughout the game, there’s going to be frustrations, but who we are as a team, we’re never going to doubt whether we can win a game or not. We came out with a different intensity level and we were able to make [the Hawks] uncomfortable… and play with a better pace on the offensive end.”
Proud of his team’s effort, Thibodeau said, “I love this team. There’s a great will and determination to them. Obviously, we were disappointed with the way we played in the first half, but I knew in the second half, there’d be great fight, and there was.”
Based on what they’ve shown all season and in Game 2, there’s good reason to believe that valuable characteristic will continue no matter what the Knicks may face for the rest of the series as the teams prepare to meet in Atlanta, in Game 3 on Friday night and in Game 4 on Sunday afternoon before returning to the Garden next Wednesday night.