The New York Knicks are back into the playoffs for the first time in eight years. Tom Thibodeau’s squad has done it in large part thanks to their grind-it-out mentality on the defensive end and their ability to make three’s on the other. Julius Randle has been remarkable, RJ Barrett has taken massive steps forward, and guys like Derrick Rose, Nerlens Noel, Alec Burks and others have provided the veteran spark needed for this younger roster. With the Knicks locked into the No. 6 seed at the absolute worst, the options of who they could see in round one are limited. Let’s look at the Knicks most favorable first-round playoff matchups, ranked.
3.) Milwaukee Bucks
Let’s start from the bottom-up for this list. The last team of the likely ones the Knicks would want to see in the first round is the Milwaukee Bucks. Led by back-to-back MVP winner Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks are right back near the top of the Eastern Conference in 2021, as many expected.
Currently, the Bucks sit with the No. 3 seed in the East. Unlike a couple of the other first-round matchups the Knicks could see, the Bucks have a legitimate case to be the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
In the offseason the Bucks went out and snatched Jrue Holiday to bolster their already crazy efficient lineup. At the trade deadline this year, they scooped up P.J. Tucker from Houston. It’s a roster that has a couple of young pieces but in large part, is a group stabilized by veteran players that are poised to make a title run right now.
What’s eye-popping about a potential Knicks – Bucks matchup is that the Knicks took two out of three in the regular season from Milwaukee. They beat them by 20 in The Garden back on December 27, when the Bucks were at full strength. The Knicks’ most recent contest was also a win against Milwaukee, but it’s worth noting that a ton of Bucks players were out for that game, including Antetokounmpo.
Despite the regular season success this year against Milwaukee, it’s still clearly the least appealing and least favorable matchup out of the options in round-one for the New York Knicks.
2.) Miami Heat
The defending Eastern Conference champions come in at No. 2 on this list. Yes, Victor Oladipo is out for the year. But this is a team that is firing on all cylinders as of late. It’s the perfect time to be playing really good basketball and Miami is doing just that.
They are 9-1 in their last ten, and six of those wins have come against playoff-bound teams.
On top of that, the Heat swept the Knicks in the regular season. While all three end results hung in the balance for most of the game, Miami made winning plays down the stretch and got critical stops in each and every one of them.
Miami matches the Knicks’ ferocious defensive approach with stifling defense of their own. Jimmy Butler is the maestro and the Heat mold their team attitude and hunger around their All-Star.
It’s not a doom-and-gloom scenario for the Knicks if the team they draw in round one is Miami. The worry is that the experience the Heat garnered after the run they made last year in the bubble gives them an edge. That, coupled with their ability to shut the Knicks down late in all three prior matchups this season makes it an interesting matchup to say the least.
1.) Atlanta Hawks
This is the matchup Knicks fans should want to see.
Yes, Atlanta is playing sound basketball lately, but there are numerous reasons as to why this at the top of the list.
One, the recent history. While the Heat have swept the Knicks this year, New York has done the exact same to the Atlanta Hawks. The Knicks have beaten Atlanta in all three affairs this season while flipping the script on Atlanta compared to what has happened to the Knicks against Miami.
They’ve done it in a variety of ways against the Hawks. They’ve jumped out to early leads in some cases, or coming from down double-digits late to force overtime and get over the hump like the most recent head-to-head tilt between the two.
Two, the difference in defense. While Milwaukee (114.3 opponents PPG) gives up more on average compared to Atlanta (111.6), a lot of that has to do with the style of play. The Bucks want to get up and down, it’s why they average the most points per pop (120.2 PPG) in the association. When Milwaukee needs to buckle down on defense they are able to do so in crunch time. Atlanta meanwhile, has been lethargic and straight up disinterested on that end of the floor at times this year.
Julius Randle has feasted against that lowly Hawks defense in 2021 and a matchup against Atlanta right out of the gate would be a most welcoming sight for the Knicks.
Atlanta is real good. They have a star in Trae Young, and great complimentary pieces in John Collins, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Clint Capela and countless others. It’s just been a bad matchup for them against the Knicks this year.
There’s of course a slim and outside chance the other team the Knicks could see in round one is the Brooklyn Nets. The odds are small and the thought is a tad unnerving, so let’s sweep it under the rug for now.
So, what do you make of the Knicks most favorable first-round playoff matchups, ranked?