Hawks have a nice us-vs.-the-world vibe going against Knicks

New York Knicks guard RJ Barrett (9) drives for a layup against Hawks forward John Collins (20) during the third quarter Wednesday, April 21, 2021, in New York. (Wendell Cruz/AP)
Caption
New York Knicks guard RJ Barrett (9) drives for a layup against Hawks forward John Collins (20) during the third quarter Wednesday, April 21, 2021, in New York. (Wendell Cruz/AP)

Credit: Wendell Cruz

Credit: Wendell Cruz

The playoffs haven’t even begun for the Hawks, and already The Man is sticking it to them.

Their coach Nate McMillan this week issued a few relatively benign comments about how happy the NBA is to have their opponent, the New York Knicks, back in the postseason for the first time since 2013.

“They need this. New York, this is a big market for the league, and New York has been out of the playoffs for a number of years,” he said.

And: “This is a team that our league, they want to see – there’s a huge fan base – and they want to see New York in the playoffs.”

ExploreNate McMillan: Comments that led to fine ‘taken out of context’

For such obvious truths, McMillan was fined $25K for “detrimental public comments asserting bias by the NBA.” The league doth protest too much, methinks. This makes it appear only as touchy and oversensitive as a poet with shingles.

Thus is the first act of establishing these Hawks as the aggrieved underdog complete. It’s Gotham with its big ratings, its monstrous marketing machinery, its dare-not-be-spoken corporate favoritism vs. the humble Atlantans whom no one respects. If McMillan mentioned this at all in a press conference, imagine how he’ll really beat that drum in the privacy of team meetings all the way to tip-off. He’ll mine that vein of motivation as long as possible.

Of course, the league is thrilled to have a Knicks team that is relevant for about the first time since Walt Frazier began coloring his hair. And every time a call goes against the Hawks, both they and their fans will have to fight the urge to dwell in conspiracy theories. The world is flooded enough with those already.

There are enough real, tangible difficulties presented the Hawks in this series without having to resort to phantom plots.

When Hawks GM Travis Schlenk was asked this week about what his team needs to do against the Knicks that it didn’t do in three previous meetings this season, he, of course, cited the single player that toyed with his guys.

“Obviously, Julius Randle is the head of the beast for them,” Schlenk said. “In my opinion, he should be the most improved player in the league. He’s the first player in the history of the league with a minimum 500 3-point attempts to go from sub-30% to plus-40% 3-point shooting in the league (he was 29% his first five seasons, 41% this season). He plays a lot of point forward for them, he gets a ton of isolations late in the game. You got to be ready to defend him as a scorer and a playmaker.”

Randle averaged 37 points in the three victories over the Hawks this season, performances marked by his largely unhampered ability to get anywhere on the floor he wanted. That naturally is something the Hawks will want to address.

“(Randle) scored everywhere, in every way possible,” McMillan said. “He shot the ball from the 3-point line, he scored in the post, he got to the free-throw line. ... He pretty much just has his way in the games we played this year.”

Said center Clint Capela: “We just have to make it hard for him. Just try to speed him up, be aggressive on him defensively and not let him get comfortable with the ball, not let him get into his move. Don’t let him get to his spot easily.” If only words could make it so.

Schlenk’s second point was not one that immediately comes to mind with the Knicks, a team that has taken from its new coach Tom Thibodeau a tougher, grittier identity. The team that leads the league in 3-point shot defense also is a threat when shooting from distance itself.

“When you think about the Knicks you don’t necessarily think about that. But as a team, they were almost 40%, and they had several guys have career years from the 3-point line. Five guys shot 40-plus. We’ve got to defend their shooters,” he said. In those three games vs. the Hawks, the Knicks shot 52% from the floor and 47% from beyond the arc.

In none of those previous games were the Hawks as hale and whole as they are today. In none of those previous three were the Hawks quite so confident in themselves and comfortable with their interim head coach (that term should catch in the throat every time it’s applied to McMillan).

While the history can’t be blithely dismissed – and the Randle problem remains very real – there is reason to look at this series as a test separate that of the regular season. One the Hawks should have a coin-flip chance of winning.

In addition, never underestimate the potential of a team whose pump has been primed with talk of how the world is set against it. That motivational tool is as old as the stone ax.

If the Hawks show up determined to change the preferred script of its playoff series against the Knicks, then McMillan’s words will go down as a canny investment in attitude. And the fine will have been worth every dollar.

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