If people didn’t know any better, they’d have thought the Atlanta Hawks were the more desperate team trying to stave off elimination while the New York Knicks still had a couple more chances to close out a series.
The reality was just the opposite when the fifth-seeded Hawks came to Madison Square Garden seeking to end the fourth-seeded Knicks’ season on Wednesday night.
Yet it was Atlanta that took the fight more to New York than the other way around during a 103-89 series-clinching win in Game 5 of the teams’ NBA Eastern Conference quarterfinal matchup.
Following a first-quarter tie, the more energized Hawks outscored the Knicks 53-41 over the middle two quarters before star point guard Trae Young shook off a cold-shooting start and took over in the final period. Atlanta led by as many as 19 points in the fourth quarter and hushed a previously raucous Garden crowd that was hoping New York could string together a couple of wins to get the series back to MSG for a deciding Game 7.
That wasn’t meant to be as the Hawks got good production from their starting frontcourt of center Clint Capela (14 points, game-high 15 rebounds) and forwards De’Andre Hunter (15 points) and John Collins (13 points, seven rebounds) until Young — who after starting just 5-for-20 from the floor — scored half of his game-high 36 points on 5-for-8 shooting plus 6-for-7 at the foul line in the last quarter to finish the Knicks’ overachieving and surprising season.
Despite receiving a well-deserved Most Improved Player award and making his first All-Star appearance this year, forward Julius Randle had an historically poor first three games of the series before picking up his play a little more over the final two games of the series. He finished with team-bests of 23 points (on 8-of-21 shooting) and 13 rebounds in Game 5 but failed to make enough of an impact and didn’t get enough help to keep New York’s season alive.
Shooting guard R.J. Barrett (17 points), forward Reggie Bullock (12 points) and reserve guards, Alec Burks (12 points) and rookie Immanuel Quickley (11 points), provided only modest support while starting veteran point guard, 32-year-old Derrick Rose — who did a great job of lifting the Knicks to its first postseason in eight years, and who played well over the first four games of the series — was a little banged up and ran out of gas with only six points on 3-for-11 shooting.
With the game already decided, Young, who was taunted in Games 1 and 2 at the Garden by some vulgar chants and who was even spit on by a Knicks fan toward the end of Game 1, took a final, mocking bow for the crowd at the base of the Knicks’ midcourt logo after draining a 31-foot 3-pointer that extended Atlanta’s lead to 101-86 with 43.7 seconds remaining.
That moment ironically came just as the MSG crowd was saluting its team with some final “Let’s Go Knicks!” chants in appreciation of a season that far exceeded the expectations of most, who pegged New York to finish in the lottery for an eighth straight season with about 20-something wins.
Instead of yet another year of futility, the Knicks ended the Covid-shortened regular season with the identical 41-31 record that the Hawks had, a mark that Atlanta achieved by rolling to a 27-11 finish under head coach Nate McMillian, who took over for departed coach Lloyd Pierce with Atlanta sitting at 14-20 a little before midseason.
Summing the appreciation Knicks fans voiced all season, Randle said, “I think we’re bringing a brand of basketball back that the city can be proud of and we have something to build on for the future.”
Head coach Tom Thibodeau, after completing his ninth year as a head coach and his first in New York (where he was an assistant from 1996-2004), added, “I think we all know what the Knicks mean to this city. There’s no other arena like this, there are no other fans like this. We’re proud of what we did but we know that we still have a long way to go and that’s the way we have to approach it. It’s doesn’t get easier, it gets harder… but I think it’s exciting for us.”
Grateful to coach in front of much larger crowds in the postseason after playing in empty arenas and much smaller crowds limited by the Covid pandemic earlier in the season, Thibodeau continued, “Going through a pandemic is not easy. I think there was great appreciation for the team. I think New York has always been that way. Sports fans [everywhere] are knowledgeable, but Knicks fans are special. I’ve been all around the league and there’s no other place like this. Even when we had 2,000 fans, it felt like 19,000… and hopefully, we gave them something that they can be proud of.”
Thibodeau not only praised Knicks fans but also took a moment to compliment Atlanta, which after winning its first playoff series in five years, will next look to upset top-seeded Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“I want to congratulate the Hawks,” Thibodeau said. “They were terrific. Nate and his staff, and their organization, their team played really well.”
In particular, Thibodeau had a lot of acclaim for the Hawks’ leader and best player, Young. “He’s clever,” Thibodeau said. “He’s very good with the ball, he can shoot, he can pass. I think he’s really grown this year. He’s done a great job for their team. So, hat’s off to him. He’s a terrific talent.”
As for the Knicks’ best player this season, Randle, his first postseason can be chalked up to getting an education the hard way.
Rose said of Randle, “The next time he’s back in the postseason, he has a foundation to work from. If anything, it’s just a learning experience.”
A dejected Randle said, “It’s tough to process it right now, the way things ended, but we’ll be back. I’m very anxious to get back to the grind.”
Reflecting on the season, Rose said, “It was a great group to play with. We love playing with one another. The synergy that we built was unbelievable.”
For New York’s younger players, like Barrett, the postseason was invaluable.
“I think it was a good first experience and I’m definitely looking for many more,” the young, potential franchise cornerstone said. “I’m proud of us for laying the foundation for the future, to get the Knicks back on the right track. I’m 20. I’m hoping to be here for a very long time, hoping to win many more games, get to many more playoffs, championships, I’m hoping for all that. I think this is a really good experience for us. Now we know what to expect. [We’ll] work hard and come back hungry for more.”
Although it was often evident in Game 5 and at other key points during the series that Atlanta outworked New York, the Knicks — who played very hard and showed great resilience throughout the regular season — had a different take on their effort in the series.
“It was a great team,” Barrett said. “We worked hard every single day. We really gave it our all. I’m okay with knowing that we gave everything we had. We fought to the end, to the last buzzer. That’s just who we are. That’s how New York is and that’s how we’ll continue to be moving forward.
“Even with all the changes we made [in the offseason], no one believed in us and we put the league on notice that we really are here. We’re a playoff team. We grind, we work hard and hopefully, we’ll continue to build on that.”
Thibodeau added, “I’m proud of what our team accomplished this year. Obviously, I’m disappointed with the result tonight and hopefully, we can learn and get better from it, but I thought our guys gave us everything they had all year long. I’m very proud of them. Hopefully, we can take this and use it as motivation for the work that we have to get done this summer in preparation for next year.”
That work will come in the wake of the first NBA postseason for Barrett, Randle and promising rookies Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin, all of whom will likely reap immense future benefit from competing in the playoffs against Atlanta.
“A lot of [our] guys, this was their first run through the playoffs, so there’s learning that goes along with that,” Thibodeau said.
He added, “Just building the foundation, building the right habits, everyone getting better, learning, growing, being together, getting knocked down, getting back up — [their] attitude and approach — was outstanding from last summer until the end.
“You couldn’t ask for anything more from a team and they were a joy to be around every day. I’ve got great respect for the effort they put forth. We’ll learn and we’ll grow and we know the challenge will be greater next year. They’re proud of what they accomplished.”
That included going from one of the worst 3-point shooting teams last season to being the second-most accurate club from behind the arc as well as leading the NBA in points allowed, field goal percentage allowed and 3-point field goal percentage allowed — all of which very few, if any, expected from the Knicks this season.
Thibodeau, a serious Coach of the Year candidate, said proudly of his team, “I don’t think anyone saw them doing what they did. Everyone doubted them all year. They didn’t doubt themselves. There was great belief, they worked as hard as you can possibly work, they shared, they sacrificed, they did all the things that you can ask for from a team.”
Perhaps the most important thing New York did besides develop its younger, foundational players was drastically change its culture under Thibodeau — in only one season — going from a league laughingstock and perennial losing franchise which offered little to attract major help, to a team that top free agents and other key talent via possible trades may now consider joining to help the Knicks take their next big step toward becoming legitimate title contenders.
Having already gone through both types of experiences in two different stints in New York, four years apart, Rose is very high on being a part of that process and believes others would want to be as well.
“I would love to come back,” Rose said. “Who wouldn’t want to play for the Knicks or be in New York? But at the same time, I know that it’s out of my hands and they may have bigger plans.”
Joining the Knicks for a second time via a trade in February, Rose was intrigued by the turnaround New York was already putting in place before his arrival.
Rose noted, “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here because they had a great core, a [good], young nucleus. With me being my age, who wouldn’t want to come in and try to build on top of that? I think there’s a lot of people in the league that think the same thing.”
New York’s new front office, headed by another Rose of no relation to Derrick (Leon Rose) will have some very difficult decisions to make with several free agents on the Knicks roster and with around $50 million in available cap space to either resign some of those players and/or see who else can be brought in over the offseason.
Along with that comes the season post-mortem.
“I think you learn from each experience,” Thibodeau said. “Every year, you analyze the things you did well, the things you didn’t do as well you would have liked, you look at how you match up with teams — you start in your division, then you look at the conference and you look at the league – and then you see where you may have opportunities, whether that’s through the draft, free agency, trades, your own player development, all four areas factor into it.”
But first, there will be some much-needed time off to regroup before continuing the hard work which has already moved the Knicks far along in their rebuilding process.
Thibodeau said, “We’ll take two to three weeks, decompress, reenergize, and then we’ll start talking about the plans for the summer and what we have to do next… we’re looking forward to next season.”