For the first time since the 2012-13 season, the New York Knicks are in the NBA Playoffs. Beyond that, the underdog squad led by a resurgent and presumptive Most Improved Player winner Julius Randle and helmed by scrappy coach Tom Thibodeau is actually the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference after an eight-year layoff from the postseason.
Though the Knicks’ underdog persona has certainly served them well during the season because of their hard-nosed defense and never-say-die attitude, they are actually no longer the underdogs they were long believed to be.
In fact, only two out of 18 ESPN experts were intrepid enough to pick the Atlanta Hawks to win their first round series against the Knicks. And with good reason, as the Knicks swept the Hawks in the regular season. So there’s certainly some recent history between the two teams. It’s worth noting that the Knicks have won four straight games against the Hawks dating back to last season. Furthermore, the Hawks have only won four games in total against the Knicks over the past four seasons.
The recent success of the Knicks certainly might sway any fan towards picking them to win the first round duel, but let’s look at a few key reasons why.
Defense Wins Championships (or at least this series)
First off, the Knicks completely flipped the script on the defensive end from their desultory 2019-20 campaign, skyrocketing from 23rd in defensive rating last season all the way to third this year.
In fact, according to Lineups, the Knicks were first in the NBA in a slew of defensive categories, including the site’s most important one: Points allowed.
They were also first in field goals allowed, opponent field goal percentage, and opponent three-point percentage. Of course, while some luck plays into those numbers (especially three-point percentage), the Knicks do have some strong perimeter defenders that they can trot out against the multifaceted guards and ballhandlers that the Hawks put on the court.
Veterans Alec Burks, Reggie Bullock, and even former MVP Derrick Rose can slither around screens when Trae Young is handling the ball, and second-year wing RJ Barrett made major strides on the less glamorous end this season.
Sure, the Hawks have a ton of weapons, but the Knicks’ defensive personnel coupled with Thibodeau’s excellent coaching might give Atlanta trouble.
Knicks Guards (aka Frank Ntilikina) Clamp Trae Young
Speaking of defense regarding Young, the Knicks actually have an ace up their sleeve that was never unveiled during the regular season: Unleashing defensive whiz Frank Ntilikina as the primary defender on Ice Trae.
Frankie Smokes only played two seconds against the Hawks in the regular season—in their final matchup on April 21—but Ntilikina’s length, size, and speed have given Young fits in past meetings between the two teams.
Ian Begley of SNY asked Thibodeau about exhuming Ntilikina in the rotation for the series and he seemed willing to make that move.
Tom Thibodeau was asked how much consideration he's given to putting Frank Ntilikina in rotation for defense vs ATL & Trae Young. "A lot. Frank's been in that role as defensive stopper." Thibodeau didn't say anything definitive about Ntilikina's role (doing so is a disadvantage)
— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) May 19, 2021
Ntilikina played sparingly all year, but when he did play, his defensive impact was clear. The 22-year-old also shot 47.9 percent from deep on 48 attempts. Get this man some minutes!
If Ntilikina doesn’t prove effective against Young, the Knicks still have Elfrid Payton and Immanuel Quickly in the cupboard.
Julius Randle Goes Off
The Knicks unearthed a star this season when the 26-year-old Randle finally put it all together and became one of the best offensive players in the NBA. While that might sound like hyperbole, Randle has long been one of the most unstoppable players in the league.
Too quick for most big men and too beefy for most wings, Randle’s game jelled beautifully in the 2020-21 season to the tune of some staggering per-game averages: 24.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 6.0 assists with a career-high 29.3 percent usage rate. He also shot a career-high 41.3 percent from downtown on a career-high 5.5 attempts per game.
While those numbers are certainly impressive, his work against the Hawks was even more grandiose. Randle has long dominated the Hawks, even during his early days with the Los Angeles Lakers. This year, he took it to another level, scoring 28, 44, and 40 in the three games against the Hawks this season, good for a 37.3 average.
Randle shot 50 percent from beyond the arc in the three games as well despite some truly preposterous attempts. If you don’t include his 0-of-5 shooting performance from long range in their first game against the Hawks last January, he shot 13-of-21 for 61.9 percent.
If the Knicks are going to win this series, it will be behind Julius Randle’s tremendous exploits carrying over from the best season of his career.