RJ Barrett (305192)
Credit: Bill Moore photo

The axiom that experience is the best teacher has aptly applied to the Knicks this postseason. After finishing the regular season 41-31 and earning the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference, they faced elimination last night (Wednesday) at Madison Square Garden in Game 5 of their best-of-seven series versus the No. 5 seed Atlanta Hawks.

With losses in Games 1, 3 and 4, the Knicks needed more than the will, resilience and resolve that defined them over 72 games prior to confronting a pressurized 3-1 deficit versus the Hawks. Individually and collectively, the Knicks have learned the postseason requires an elevation of performance and a maximizing of abilities, and the men who have led the charge must match or outplay their opponent’s best players.

That hadn’t been the case for the first four games as the Hawks’ superlative point-guard Trae Young was in absolute command, confounding the Knicks in pick and rolls, probing their uncharacteristically faulty defense, and gaining access to the paint basically whenever he pleased. The 6-2 Young came into Game 5 averaging 27.5 points and 10 assists, both series leading numbers.

Conversely, Knicks forward Julius Randle and guard RJ Barrett, like Young playing in their first postseason, were averaging 16.8 and 13.8 respectively, glaringly below the 24.1 and 17.6 they carried in the regular season. It is why the Hawks swaggered into MSG confident they would leave Manhattan moving on to the second round to meet either the Philadelphia 76ers or Washington Wizards. The 76ers led the Wizards 3-1 when the fifth game of their series tipped off in Washington last night.

Two days after a contentious Game 4 on Sunday in Atlanta, a 113-96 Hawks win in which one of their forwards, John Collins, required four stitches resulting from an incidental elbow from Randle in the third quarter, that coming before former Knick Danilo Gallinari elbowed Reggie Bullock in the back of the head in the fourth, compelling Randle to retaliate by intentionally hitting Gallinari with a forearm, Hawks center Clint Capella dismissed the efficacy of the Knicks’ rough play.

“I don’t know if they’re physical, but they’re trying to play physical,” said Capella, who ended Sunday with impactful four-game averages of nine points, 13 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. “I feel like if they were really physical,” he trolled, “I think we’d have more problems than what we have.

“They are trying to play tough, push our guys around and talk s—… We showed them as soon as we came back here that we can do that too… So what you gonna do about it? …Now we’re coming to your home to win this game again and send you on vacation,” Capella jabbed.

Derrick Rose, whose 22.8 points paced the Knicks in the series ahead of Game 5, took a measured position to Capella’s barbs. “I’m 32-years-old,” said the veteran guard via Zoom on Tuesday in a press conference with the media. “I never talked shit in my life. I’m not going to start now that Clint Capella said something.”

Randle was more blunt. “Why would I give a hell what Clint Capella would have to say?” The verbal back-and-forth was irrelevant when the teams stepped onto the Garden court. The Knicks were in urgent circumstances, staring at elimination with no margin for error. They were either going to prepare for Game 6 in Atlanta tomorrow or look toward next season.