The NBA playoff picture isn’t quite set in stone just yet with the play-in tournament still set to determine the final two seedings in both conferences. However, the 3-6 seeds already know who they will face in the opening round of the playoffs. The 4-5 matchup in the Eastern Conference will feature an interesting showdown between the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks. While both franchises have a ton of playoff history, New York and Atlanta will showcase stars who will have their very first taste of the bright lights of playoff basketball.
The Knicks have All-Star forward Julius Randle and sophomore wing RJ Barrett bannering their flag, while Atlanta will be led by All-Star guard Trae Young along with versatile forward John Collins. Both teams also have their respective veterans who have some relevant playoff experience under their belt: New York with former MVP Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson; the Hawks with Danilo Gallinari, Clint Capela, and Lou Williams, just to name a few.
1. Julius Randle will average a triple-double
Julius Randle has been playing MVP-level basketball for the Knicks all season long. The 26-year-old will likely win Most Improved Player due to the significant strides he took with his game this season. Randle’s improvement in terms of his 3-point shooting and playmaking has been one of the biggest reasons for the Knicks’ surprising success in 2020-21.
Randle dominated the Hawks during their season series, where the Knicks won all three games. The 2014 No. 7 overall pick scored over 40 points twice against Atlanta, with his other contest being a 28-point, 17-rebound performance in a tight 113-108 win back in January. With that, the Hawks could opt to send double-teams toward Randle. However, with his elite court vision and willingness to pass, Randle could average double-digit assists if Atlanta is going to play him that way the entire series.
Of course, he’s a nightly double-double threat, as he averaged 24.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 6.0 assists throughout the regular season. With so much of the New York offense going through Randle and with the attention he’ll get from Atlanta’s defense, the hefty lefty could rack up the dimes with his ability to see the floor and set up his teammates. This is why there is a good reason to believe that the 6-foot-8 forward could average a triple-double in his first-ever playoff series.
2. Lou Williams will win a game for the Hawks with Trae Young on the bench
Trae Young is obviously the engine that drives the Hawks’ offense. It’s going to be hard to envision him sitting on the Atlanta bench for a long stretch at any point in this series.
Meanwhile, Lou Williams hasn’t done much in his return to his hometown squad. Since getting traded from the Los Angeles Clippers to the Hawks at the trade deadline, Sweet Lou is averaging just 10.0 points on 38.9 percent shooting in 24 outings. Those numbers are a far cry from his Sixth Man of the Year days, especially with the Clippers.
Nevertheless, the 34-year-old is a certified bucket-getter and could light up the scoreboard on any given night. With his experience, especially in big playoff games, Williams could have one of those nights where he will just score at will to keep the Hawks in the game.
The Hawks probably can’t afford to have Williams and Young on the floor at the same time, as their defense will suffer by doing so. That’s why I could see Williams just go off in one game during this series, which will force head coach Nate McMillan’s hand to play him during crunch time as franchise star Trae Young sits on the bench. The Hawks will win this game as a result of Sweet Lou’s turn-back-the-clock performance.
3. This series will go the distance
On the surface, the regular-season series shows the Knicks dominating the Hawks with a clean 3-0 sweep. But that will likely not be the case heading into this intriguing playoff battle.
Sure, New York won the three outings by an average of 8.7 points, with the closest being a five-point victory in their first meeting. The Knicks won the final two meetings by double digits. The latest, however, went into overtime. Nonetheless, the games were relatively close overall, and the Hawks could have certainly executed better down the stretch that could have turned a game or two in their favor.
Both squads are also entering the series with a ton of momentum. The Hawks were on fire down the stretch, having won seven of their last eight regular-season games. Meanwhile, the Knicks won four of their last five, including three straight to secure the No. 4 spot and home-court advantage in the first round.
With both the Knicks and Hawks ending their respective campaigns on strong notes, this should be a tight seven-game battle until the end — similar to the Denver Nuggets versus Utah Jazz seven-game epic we saw in the Orlando bubble last year.