Although they shook things up and got off to a better start with a new starting lineup, the halftime score was eerily similar to the deficit the New York Knicks faced at home in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with the Atlanta Hawks.
New York trailed 57-44 at halftime on Wednesday before a dominant 57-35 second half propelled the Knicks to a nine-point, series-evening home win.
There was no such comeback the next time.
As the series shifted to Atlanta on Friday night, fourth-seeded New York was down by a familiar 58-44 margin at intermission but merely played the Hawks roughly even in the second half as fifth-seeded Atlanta broke open a very close start with a huge game-turning run toward the end of the opening half and cruised to a 105-94 Game 3 victory at State Farm Arena to take a 2-1 best-of-seven series lead.
After the Knicks outscored the Hawks by 14 points in the third quarter and by eight points in the fourth period in Game 2, each team scored 28 points in the third quarter and each had 19 in the fourth period of Game 3 before New York closed the scoring on a harmless 3-pointer from Derrick Rose in the final minute on Friday night.
Rose, a major catalyst in pushing the Knicks to their first playoff series in eight years after he was acquired via a trade in February, had been a huge spark off the bench for New York.
However, fearing another bad beginning, head coach Tom Thibodeau made a lineup change that many thought was long overdue, benching ineffective regular starting point guard Elfrid Payton and starting center Nerlens Noel in favor of Rose and center Taj Gibson in Game 3.
For a good while, that worked — at least from the point guard spot — as Rose carried the Knicks by scoring 11 of their first 19 points to help New York keep pace in a very competitive first quarter that featured nine ties and five lead changes.
Rose was 5-for-8 and Gibson went 2-for-2 in the period, but their teammates were 0-for-13 before forward Julius Randle beat the first-quarter buzzer to give the Knicks a 31-29 lead.
There were five more lead changes and another tie in the second quarter, but after New York led 39-36, Atlanta blitzed the Knicks with a decisive 22-3 surge, to lead, 58-42. The Hawks led by double digits the rest of the way, going up by as much as 18 points within the first two minutes of the final quarter.
Second-year shooting guard R.J. Barrett, who was held to just seven points on 2-for-9 shooting, said, “Runs happen [but] we can’t let them do that. We’ve got to continue to fight. There’s no way they should be going on a crazy run like that, scoring that many points.”
Barrett was one of several Knicks to struggle beside Rose.
While Rose led New York with a game-high 30 points on efficient 13-for-21 shooting, his teammates shot a combined 16-for-60 with only one other Knick scoring as many three baskets, six others getting just two and Noel scoring only one.
Meanwhile, Atlanta had a much more balanced attack, with all five starters and two reserves scoring in double figures, led by point guard Trae Young’s 21 points. Young also had a game-high 14 assists — accounting for half of his team’s assists and matching New York’s total — while committing only two turnovers.
Though each team finished with 11 turnovers, the Knicks shared the ball a lot less than the Hawks and had to work much harder for their scoring than Atlanta did. Through the first three quarters, New York totaled just seven assists compared to the Hawks’ 23.
While the Knicks enjoyed a huge advantage at the foul line, going 27-for-30 (including 13-for-13 in the first quarter) to the Hawks’ 5-for-8, Atlanta dominated New York from behind the arc, where the Hawks shot 16-for-27 to the Knicks’ 9-for-30.
With Rose as a starter, the Knicks no longer could count on gaining an edge in bench scoring, an area in which New York had outscored Atlanta 119-53 (with Rose scoring 43) over the first two games of the series. In Game 3, the Hawks’ bench outscored the Knicks’ reserves, 31-28.
All of the above added up to Atlanta’s 12 straight home win and the Hawks’ 20th in their past 22 games on their own floor.
The victory continued a remarkable turnaround for a team that started the season just 14-20 under departed head coach Lloyd Piece before the Hawks finished the regular season 27-11 under head coach Nate McMillian to match the very surprising and overachieving 41-31 season led by Thibodeau in his first year guiding the Knicks (who were expected to be lottery-bound for an eighth straight season).
McMillan has thus far outcoached Thibodeau in terms of slowing down New York’s leading scorer and the NBA’s 2020-21 Most Improved Player, forward Julius Randle, who has had a nightmarish start to the first playoff series of his career.
The 26-year-old Randle was dominant in three regular-season games against Pierce’s Hawks and in another against Atlanta with the Hawks playing under McMillan, averaging 37.3 points on 58 percent shooting (including 50 percent from 3-point range) and 6.7 assists while going to the free throw line 12 times per game (making 11 per game).
But in the playoffs, McMillan and the Hawks have keyed on Randle, daring other Knicks to beat them.
So far, that has largely worked in an historic way.
Randle has shot just 24.1 percent (13-for-54) in the playoffs, marking the worst field goal percentage by any player with a minimum of 50 shot attempts over the first three games of a postseason in the shot clock era.
In Game 3, Randle was held to a feckless 14 points on abysmal 2-for-15 shooting. Atlanta has limited him to just 14.7 points per game on 20.6 percent (7-for-34) shooting from 2-point range and 30 percent shooting (6-for-20) from beyond the arc.
Although Randle was 8-for-8 at the foul line in Game 3, he missed all eight of his 2-point shots in the game and for the series, he has only attempted an average of 4.7 free throws (making 4.3 per game) while averaging just 3.3 assists.
Taking responsibility for his struggles and for not getting rid of the ball faster when he’s double-teamed or even triple-teamed, Randle admitted, “It’s on me. I’ve got to find a way to read the outlets a little bit better.”
Rose said the problem is, “They’re doubling from weird spots. They’re coming from sometimes, the top, mostly baseline, but their guys are doing a good job of making sure [we] don’t get a clean lane or a clean look.”
Thibodeau believes the Knicks can gets some of those good looks from not only Randle giving up the ball faster when pressured, but through additional passes from Randle’s teammates to potentially set up some good shots.
“They loaded up on [Randle] pretty good,” Thibodeau noted. “When a team does that, when they put two and three guys on you, you’ve got to make the play… he’s seen a lot of that this year, but that should lead to offensive rebounding [and] open 3s on the back side, so we’ve got to trust the pass.
“The big thing is to get rid of the ball and to make the plays early, and when you do that, you usually can get really high-percentage shots off of that.
“Any time the second defender comes, it’s usually not the first pass, it’s the second pass that’s going to get you the wide-open shot. We can’t hold onto the ball, we can’t allow the clock to run down, we’ve got to make quicker decisions, we’ve got to move [without the ball] and then we’ve got to play with intensity.”
That last part thrown in by Thibodeau had more to do with the other end of the floor rather than with the Knicks’ offense.
“I thought our defense in Game 2 was vital because it got us into the open floor,” Thibodeau said. “It got us some easy buckets and I didn’t think we ever really got our defense going in this game. We have to understand the intensity we have to bring to each game.”
In Game 3, Rose said, “[The Hawks] did a great job of finding guys with the second pass [or] they were driving the ball [off] the second pass and just creating havoc.”
He also emphasized that New York’s offense, even if it struggles, can’t dictate how the Knicks plays defensively.
“We’ve got to find a way to grind it out when we’re not making shots,” Rose said. “We can’t play lackadaisical on the defensive end if we’re not getting easy baskets [on offense]. If you’re not making [defensive] plays with a shooting team like [the Hawks], there’s no way you’re going to win games.”
If the Knicks, who have shown great resilience all season, including in Game 2, are to even things in Game 4 and eventually win the series, they likely can’t allow another stretch like they had at the end of the first half on Friday night.
“We had that one bad stretch in the second quarter… and that was the difference in the game,” Randle said. “Our offense got a little stagnant, [there were some] long rebounds, [there were] turnovers and they were able to get out and hit 3s, and they busted the game open.”
Thibodeau added, “We didn’t close the second [quarter] the way we would’ve liked. That set us back and that gave [the Hawks] confidence and changed the game there. We have to fix that.”
As for whether Thibodeau will keep the same starting lineup he had for Game 3 or revert back to the previous way New York was approaching things, it’s a bit of a balancing act to be evaluated and reconsidered.
“The big thing was the start of the game, trying to get off to a good start, particularly on the road, but then we had the problem in the second quarter, so we’ve got to take a look at that,” Thibodeau said.
Regardless of what is decided with that as New York tries to turn the page ahead of Game 4 in Atlanta on Sunday afternoon, Thibodeau remained very positive and hopeful.
“I see the way these guys work every day and I see how they approach things,” he said. “Their attitude is very upbeat and their work ethic is second-to-none. We’re disappointed, obviously, in the way we played and we’ll take a good, hard look at it and come back with more determination in the next game. We have great belief in each other… and hopefully, we’ll play better on Sunday.”