For a while there, the Hawks were making this – dare we say it? – look easy. They led by 15 points in the second quarter, by 13 at the half. Trae Young, sworn enemy of every New Yorker from the mayor on down, was sailing home shots from the logo and, for variety’s sake, driving the lane and flipping an around-the-world scoop through the hoop.

ExploreHawks falter in second half, can't hold lead

Having banked a last-gasp victory in Sunday’s Game 1, the visitors were playing with proverbial house money. The worst they could do was fly home to Atlanta tied in the series. That said, this stellar first half made a 2-0 lead seem not just possible but probable. And then, faster than you could say “28-3,” the lead was gone and the relieved Knicks were pulling away. They would win 101-92.

The Hawks missed 13 of 18 third-quarter shots. They began the fourth by missing four more. They slipped from 13 points up to 10 down. This being the NBA, leads come and go. This lead, however, was lost with Young and Bogdan Bogdanovich on the bench. Hawks coach Nate McMillan would say afterward that he was trying to stick to his usual rotation – meaning bringing Young back with eight or so minutes remaining – but this wasn’t a usual night. This was Game 2 of a best-of-seven.

“Trae played 35 minutes,” McMillan said. “You’ve got to give your bench some time.”

When finally Young and Bogdanovich returned, the Knicks led by double figures for first time in the series. Sure enough, the Hawks clambered back, outscoring their opponent 13-3 and drawing even with Clint Capela whomped down a lob from Young. Five minutes remained, and here you thought, “McMillan timed this perfectly.”

Two minutes later, you were thinking, “Um … maybe not.”

Young would finish with 30 points, 20 in the first half. The Hawks, who worked the first six quarters of this series with nary a missed step, managed 18 points in the third, 17 in the fourth. Over five consecutive possessions inside the final 3:10, the Hawks went 3-point crazy. Bogdanovic missed a trey try. De’Andre Hunter missed one, then another. Young missed from – whoa, Nellie – 33 feet. Bogdanovich missed from 25. By then, the Knicks led by nine. Game 2 was gone.

Said McMillan: “We put so much into the first half. We came out flat in the second half.”

Then: “Their pressure sped us up. We took some quick shots.”

Atlanta Hawks' Trae Young shoots a 3-pointer against the New York Knicks in Game 2 in an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Wednesday, May 26, 2021, in New York. (Elsa/Pool Photo via AP)
Atlanta Hawks' Trae Young shoots a 3-pointer against the New York Knicks in Game 2 in an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Wednesday, May 26, 2021, in New York. (Elsa/Pool Photo via AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The Hawks hoisted 44 3-pointers, making just 12. They took four more 3s than 2s. It didn’t help that John Collins was whistled for two early fouls. He worked just 15 minutes. He didn’t score. Capela took 13 rebounds and blocked five shots, but he took only five shots and scored four points. Bogdanovich and Danilo Gallinari made a collective four of 22 treys.

Said Bogdanovich: “We were in a good position. We couldn’t hold the lead.”

Give the Knicks credit. Julius Randle finally got going. Derrick Rose called back the years, working 29 minutes at age 32 and, by scoring 26 points, keeping his team afloat. The Hawks weren’t crushed by losing – if they win Games 3 and 4 at State Farm Arena, they’ll be on the cusp of Round 2 – but over the next two days we’ll all be wondering what might have happened had McMillan, who has worked a slew of playoff games over his distinguished career, summoned Young and Bogdanovich when the fourth quarter commenced.

Be advised that McMillan will not be among those wonderers. “I was fine with my rotation tonight,” he said.

Knicks 101, Hawks 92 (box score)

Big-picture-wise, the Hawks are in a fine place. After two games, they have reason to believe they’re every bit as good as the Knicks and possibly a tad better. Tom Thibodeau’s defensive schemes haven’t yet prevented Young from scoring 30 points. With six minutes left in the third quarter, the Hawks led by 12 and the Madison Square Garden patrons were facing the grim possibility that the reborn Knicks were about to fall down 2-0 with no guarantee of playing another game in Manhattan until November.

The Hawks could have lost by 20 on Wednesday and still headed home having accomplished their mission. They’ve won a road playoff game. They now hold the homecourt edge. Over the series’ first six quarters, they’d outscored the Knicks by 15 points. All the doubts had been heaped on the Knicks. Now the series is even, which means there’s room for doubt on both sides.

Following the epic finish of Game 1 would have taken much doing, but the Hawks gave it a go. They again had the Knicks on the run, and the Knicks don’t like it when they can’t grind out games. Driven by desperation, they seized Game 2. The Hawks, less desperate, let a winnable game slip away.

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