The Hawks took a commanding 3–1 lead over the Knicks in their first-round series Sunday, dispatching New York 113–96. After a Game 2 loss, Atlanta has now won the last two matchups in the series by a combined 28 points. Trae Young continued to shine in his debut postseason, picking up 27 points and nine assists in the win. Meanwhile, Julius Randle continued to struggle, shooting under 40% from the field for the fourth straight game—though he finished with a series-high 23 points. Here are three thoughts on the Hawks’ win.
Atlanta’s Offense Is Well Balanced
Young will rightfully draw many headlines for his performance in this series. His teammates have also made a great impact. The Hawks and Knicks stand in stark contrast offensively. New York relies perhaps an unsustainable amount on Randle, while Atlanta has surrounded Young with players who can take advantage of the attention he draws offensively. That’s really been the story of this series.
Non-Young Hawks shot 11-of-25 from three Sunday, or 44%. Bogdan Bogdanovic has hit at least three three-pointers in three of the series’ four games, and New York has had very little answer for him. Whether it’s on kick-outs, pull-ups, or isolation against a lesser defender, Bogdanovic has become a lethal weapon for Atlanta. He is playing with incredible confidence, and with the Knicks desperate to figure out how to slow down Young in pick-and-rolls, players like Bogdanovic have feasted.
It wasn’t only Bogi on Sunday. Danilo Gallinari scored 21. Kevin Huerter hit three triples. John Collins added 22 points of his own. Young’s limitless range and ability to finish in the paint is soaking up so much of the Knicks’ mental capital that it gives everyone else on the floor more room to operate. The Hawks still have some ways to go before they’re a bona fide contender in the East. Still, this series has shown it will take an incredible level of defensive focus to slow them down in a playoff series.
Clint Capela is the Unsung Hero
The Hawks’ plan to defend Randle was well-conceived and is being executed brilliantly. Any time Randle gains possession, his primary defender will get in his body while basically everybody else on defense shades toward the paint. It’s putting lots of pressure on Randle as a playmaker, it makes it difficult for him to get to his pull-up jumper, the paint is being turned into a mosh pit, and the Knicks don’t have the outside shooting or secondary playmaking to routinely beat the coverage.
Clint Capela is the backbone of this strategy. Capela has been a godsend for the Hawks this season. Atlanta had a 108.2 defensive rating with him on the floor this season, which would have ranked as the fifth-best defense in the NBA. The Hawks currently have a 98.9 defensive rating in the first round with Capela on the floor, and he’s become an especially important weapon against Randle. Watch Capela basically shadow Randle from a few feet away while a primary defender stays attached:
Again, the Knicks make this possible because of their lack of weapons. But Capela has been an essential part of Atlanta’s largely overwhelming defensive performance through four games. As long as he lurks in the middle, New York is stuck in the mud.
The Knicks Maxed Out
This series is not over, and maybe the Knicks find a way to flip the script. No matter what happens though, this has been a great year for New York, and this first-round matchup should be looked at as a building block more than anything else. Randle’s struggles should illustrate to the front office the help he needs moving forward. Elfrid Payton’s ineffectiveness should dictate future rotation decisions. Obi Toppin’s useful energy shows what kind of role he can have in the future.
Knicks fans who are upset have a right to be—nobody wants to see their team get outclassed for two straight games. But even as the Hawks appear to have exerted their will on this series, the Knicks are learning lessons and raising the floor in a way years in the lottery never did. There’s value to be found even in the losses.
More NBA Coverage:
• The Mental Peril of This NBA Season
• Nuggets May Not Need Murray to Make Some Noise
• Kyrie Irving’s Return to Boston Reignites Racism Issue
• Why the Knicks Haven't Taken Advantage of Trae Young's Defense