Hawks’ keys to the series vs. Knicks begin with limiting Julius Randle

“Stopping” the Knicks’ Julius Randle might not be the right word.

As far as what the Hawks are going for, “limiting” might fit better.

Randle, one of three finalists for the NBA’s Most Improved Player this season, dominated in the Knicks’ regular-season sweep of the Hawks. He’s not the only focus leading into the No. 5-seed Hawks’ first-round playoff series vs. the No. 4-seed Knicks, but he’s certainly a big one.

“He’s having an outstanding season for New York,” Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan said Friday, with Game 1 set for Sunday in New York. “This guy’s scoring all over the floor, on the perimeter, behind the 3-point line, in the post. He’s the guy that is creating a lot of things for them on the offensive end of the floor. We’ve just got to make it tough for him.”

In the regular season, Randle (6-foot-8, 250 pounds) averaged a double-double of 24.1 points and 10.2 rebounds, plus six assists per game, but went for 37.3 points, 12.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists in three games vs. the Hawks. He helped New York to a 113-108 win Jan. 4, a 123-112 win Feb. 15 (with a season-high 44-point performance and career-high seven 3-pointers) and a 137-127 overtime win April 21.

He’s not the only threat, but the Hawks’ defense has yet to find a way to stop him, and that’s one of the biggest hurdles they’ll have to clear if they’re to win the series.

Randle excels at taking advantage of his matchups, flying to the perimeter if there’s a bigger defender on him and heading to the post if a defender is smaller. What the Hawks will try to do is make him work to catch, force him to shoot over the top and keep him off the free-throw line — basically, just make his life difficult.

Power forward John Collins, forward De’Andre Hunter and center Clint Capela all likely will spend some time defending Randle.

Let’s take a look at some other keys to the series, which seems pretty evenly matched:

Staying healthy

It’s good timing for Hunter to be back mostly healthy, with an increase to his minute restriction looking likely (he played 24 minutes in Sunday’s win vs. the Rockets). Getting his shooting and defense back may end up being critical.

Overall, this will be the first time the Hawks will face the Knicks with the combination of McMillan at the helm, a pretty healthy Hunter, a healthy guard Trae Young and a healthy wing Bogdan Bogdanovic. Former coach Lloyd Pierce coached the first two games, Young sprained his ankle in the third quarter of the final game, with the Hawks leading by eight, and Hunter missed the second and third games because of a knee injury. Bogdanovic missed the fourth quarter of the first game after tweaking his ankle and missed the second game with a knee injury.

The Hawks, who finished with the ninth-best offensive rating (114.3), have been banged up all season and only recently got healthier. Staying as close to full force as possible will be key, as they battle through this series.

The 3-point line

Twice in the regular season, the Knicks shot 50% or better from 3-point range against the Hawks, going 19-35 from 3 in their overtime win in April and 17-34 in the February win. They rank No. 3 in 3-point percentage this season (39.2%), making an average of 11.8 (No. 21 in the league) out of 30 attempts per game.

For context, the Hawks are 12th in 3-point percentage at 37.3% and make 12.4 (No. 17) out of 33.4 3-point attempts per game (the Knicks also have the best 3-point defense in the NBA, holding opponents to 33.7%, with the Hawks third at 34.9%).

Randle and Derrick Rose (a finalist for Sixth Man of the Year) are shooting 41.1% from beyond the arc, Reggie Bullock is shooting 41% and RJ Barrett is shooting 40.1%. Preventing the Knicks from getting hot from 3, and defending better altogether, is a focus. Barrett adds 17.6 points per game, Rose adds 14.9 and Bullock adds 10.9, not to mention that Immanuel Quickley (11.4) has given the Hawks grief off the bench, so it’s not just Randle they have to deal with.

“Field-goal percentage, they were scoring pretty much at will, shooting 51% from the floor, 47% from the 3-point line,” McMillan said. “So we really did not do a good job of defending this team this season. ... Of course, Randle has been the main guy, and I think he is certainly the difference in what they are doing this season, but they have guys like Rose who has played well and played well against us. Quickley, Bullock, all of those guys have played well against us. So it’s not just one guy. Certainly we have to focus on our coverages against him, but it’s stopping the Knicks.”

Staying mentally tough

For many Hawks players, this will be their first time in the playoffs. That includes Young, Collins, Hunter, Bogdanovic and wing Kevin Huerter.

They don’t have home-court advantage, and the presumptive starting lineup of Young, Bogdanovic, Hunter, Collins and Capela has played only 16 minutes together because of a plethora of injuries. This will be a test for that group, though they have some veterans to lean on.

“I think mentally for guys who haven’t been in the playoffs, (mentally), you can’t have distractions,” McMillan said. “The officiating can’t be a distraction because the game is going to be more physical. Teams are going to be coming with more of a sense of urgency on every possession and the officials are going to allow you to play, and you have to be able to mentally play through that and execute on both ends of the floor.”

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