Seven-game series often take on a life of their own. They can have varying characteristics and trends, some expected and others unforeseen. Dramatic swings can become the norm instead of anomalies.
The New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks, the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds respectively in the NBA’s Eastern Conference playoffs, may be the most evenly matched teams in the opening round of the postseason. So no matter how their series unfolds from game to game, it shouldn’t be cause for shock for fans of either team.
After the Knicks failed to seize an opportunity to win Game 1 at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night, losing by 107-105 when the Hawks’ skillful, 6-2 point-guard Trae Young dropped a soft seven-foot floater in the lane with 0.9 remaining, reactions from their die-hards unsurprisingly ranged from reasonable to extreme.
Among the former was the obvious conclusion that Julius Randle, the Knicks’ regular season leader in points (24.1), rebounds (10.2) and assists (6.0), and their lone All-Star this season, had to play much better. Randle, 26, making his playoff debut, shot just 6-23 for 15 points in the opener and was forced out of sorts by the Hawks’ long, active defenders.
“They loaded up on him pretty good,” said Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau following the Game 1 loss. “We anticipated that…So if they put two on him, hit the open man and it should be easy offense from there.”
Under the latter explanations was placing the blame for the defeat on the Knicks’ starting point guard Elfrid Payton, who for the better part of the last two seasons has been a common target of frustration for a plethora of the team’s fan base. Not allowing a false narrative to blur the truth, Payton was a non-factor, and didn’t affect Game 1, positively or negatively, in any meaningful way.
The 27-year-old, seven-year veteran played only eight minutes and was sealed to the bench the entire fourth quarter. Payton’s minutes will continue to be minimal as Thibodeau makes necessary adjustments, beginning with Game 2 at the Garden last night (Wednesday). His lack of presence was mitigated by guards Alec Burks and Derrick Rose.
Burks, 29, who was signed by the Knicks as a free-agent to a one-year, $6 million deal last August, came off of the bench to lead them with 27 points. Rose continued to be a force as part of the Knicks’ formidable second unit, registering 17 points, five assists and five rebounds in 38 minutes. The 32-year-old Rose’s postseason experience is critical in helping the younger players navigate the pressurized, unfamiliar circumstances in which every possession is precious. The Chicago native has 48 playoff games and counting on his resume.
But the Knicks will not get out of this series victorious if Randle, who on Tuesday was named the 2020-2021 NBA Most Improved Player, receiving 98 of the 100 first place votes, doesn’t consistently approach or surpass his superlative regular season play.
“I’m not making any excuses. I have to be better. I will be better. And I’ll just leave it at that,” said Randle in evaluating Game 1. “We knew coming in that it’d be a tough series. That’s why you have to be strong-minded, level-headed, even-keel, and realize that it was just the first of four.”
Games 3 (tomorrow, 7:00 p.m.) and 4 (Sunday, 1:00 p.m.) will be held in Atlanta.