In their biggest game of the year, the New York Knicks looked as though they were merely pretending to compete with the Atlanta Hawks. As a result, the Knicks are now in a desperate situation.
Staying with the fifth-seeded Hawks for a half on Sunday, the fourth-seeded Knicks made a couple of third-quarter runs that merely delayed the inevitable — a 113-96 Game 4 rout that gave the Hawks a 3-1 stranglehold of a lead in the teams’ Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
Leading at halftime (53-49) for the fourth straight game in the series, Atlanta started the second half on a 15-5 run to push its lead to 68-54. New York scored the next seven points, but the Hawks responded with the next 10 points to lead by 17. The Knicks closed to within single digits on a 10-5 spurs, but Ex-Knick first-round draft pick, forward Danilo Gallinari (21 points in 25 bench minutes), hit a pull-up jumper before Bogdan Bogdanovich drilled an open left wing 3-pointer to give the Atlanta a commanding 88-71 lead entering the final quarter.
It got worse from there for New York after Gallinari delighted the crowd at State Farm Arena — where the Hawks won for a 13th straight time and 20th in 22 home games — with a thunderous transition dunk and two free throws to cap to make it 99-74 less than four minutes into the fourth period. The Hawks led by as many as 26 points with 2 ½ minutes left.
Gallinari was part of a trio 20-point scorers for Atlanta, along with start point guard Trae Young (game-highs of 27 points, nine assists) and forward John Collins (22 points).
In two very good games at home — to help the Hawks go from being tied in the series to grabbing a two-game lead — Young seemed to effortlessly dominate the Knicks will less energy than Knicks fans used to curse at him and spit on him during the first two games of the series in New York.
For a second straight game after the Knicks dominant second-half performance that evened the series in Game 2 at home, New York was largely noncompetitive during the second half.
Aside from two distinct advantages the Knicks held in each of the two playoff games in Atlanta — outscoring the Hawks 27-5 at the foul line in Game 3 and 22-6 in points off turnovers in Game 4 — New York was outscored everywhere else by 33 points (100-67 in Game and 107-74 in Game 4) in each of those two contests.
After an historically bad shooting performance over the first three games of the series forward Julius Randle was a little more efficient in leading the Knicks with 23 points (and 10 rebounds) on 7-of-19 shooting. Second-year shooting guard R.J. Barrett also had his first good game of the series, adding 12 points on 8-for-15 shooting. But while New York’s best player in the series entering the game, point guard Derrick Rose, had 18 points, he was held to only two points in 1-for-6 shooting in the second half.
Rose’s 10 first-quarter points helped stake the Knicks to a 26-25 lead after the opening quarter. New York took its biggest lead after scoring the first four points to start the second period, but Atlanta, which missed 10 of its first 11 3-pointers, made three straight in a span of 57 seconds to lead, 34-30.
New York recovered from a later run of eight straight Hawks points (which put the Knicks down, 51-44) to keep things close by intermission, but that was short-lived coming out of the locker room as Atlanta immediately took control thereafter.
“We got back on our heels… but we’ve got to fix it,” head coach Tom Thibodeau said, speaking in particular about Atlanta’s 35-22 third quarter. “We’ve got to fix it fast.”
Although the Knicks — especially Randle — had far more success (especially offensively) against the Hawks in winning all three regular-season meetings with Atlanta, head coach Tom Thibodeau was under no illusion things would be as easy for his team in the postseason.
“The playoffs are different,” he said. “We got [young] guys that are getting [playoff] experience for the first time, but we’re capable. We’ve got to go home and just figure out how to play well in that game — just take it step by step.”
Making 3-pointers and defending them more consistent with what New York was used to in the regular season are two areas the Knicks need to return to if they have any hope of coming back to win the series with the Hawks.
After ranking second in the NBA in 3-point accuracy (39.2 percent) and leading the league in both opponents’ field goal percentage (44 percent) and opponents’ 3-point field goal percentage (33.7 percent) during the regular season, New York has struggled with all three of those in the postseason.
The Knicks’ 3-point shooting has dipped nearly 6½ percentage points lower (to 32.8 percent) in the playoffs while they have allowed the Hawks to shoot 4½ percentage points higher (38.2%) from behind the arc in the postseason than what New York surrendered to opponents in the regular season.
Overthinking things and being irresolute with the ball, Thibodeau believes, is where the Knicks’ recent 3-point shooting woes have started.
“We shot the 3 great all year,” Thibodeau noted. “I think the big thing for us is to make quick decisions, and when we do that, we’re capable of making those shots. I don’t want guys hesitating. [They’ve] done it throughout the course of the season. [They’ve] shown how capable [they] are, [so] keep it simple. [If you’re] open, shoot it, [if] guarded, make a play.”
Defensively, especially when it comes to containing Young, Thibodeau added, “We’ve got to fly around and we’ve got to be active. If we do that and we challenge shots, then our chances will be better.”
Despite the very difficult hole the Knicks have put themselves in, no longer with any room for error with another loss in the series, New York remains defiantly confident, even perhaps surprisingly self-assured, given the desperate straits the team faces returning home for Game at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.
“I’ll come back better and be better next game, and for however long we’re playing,” Randle said. “It’s not over, it’s not nearly over. We’ll come back [in] Game 5 and take it from there. I like our chances, but it all starts with Game 5, so I think that’s all we can really focus on. I love our chances.”
Thibodeau added, “There’s resiliency to this team and we have to fight back, and we will.”