The NBA did its best to stretch out this series – it took 11 days to play five games – but even lazy logistics couldn’t halt the hurryin’ Hawks. From the early stages of Game 1, they knew they were better than the Knicks. But who among us could have known they’d be THIS much better? Who’d have guessed the first playoff appearance of a rebuilt roster would have produced … utter domination?
The Knicks beat the Hawks three times over the regular season. The same Knicks could win but once, that after trailing by 15 points, over these 11 days. Over Games 3, 4 and 5, the Hawks didn’t trail in the second half. Knowing they couldn’t outplay the Hawks, the New Yorkers tried to bully them. That didn’t work, either. How can you frighten a team that’s fearless?
The Hawks played their worst game of the series Wednesday night. They won 103-89, which says it all. Trae Young missed 18 of 28 shots. No matter. He finished with 36 points and nine assists. Clint Capela, who baited the Knicks in a Zoom session Tuesday, walked the walk – 14 points on seven shots, 15 rebounds, two early blocks.
The allegedly daunting Madison Square Garden audience left the Hawks undaunted. They acted like they owned the place. Certainly they owned the Knicks. This was as lopsided as a 4-versus-5 series gets.
The Hawks were 14-20 when they fired Lloyd Pierce on March 1. Counting this series, they’re 31-12 under Nate McMillan. They’ve gone from being a raging disappointment to a team you don’t want to see coming in postseason, even if you’re a No. 1 seed. As it happens, the Hawks will face top-seeded Philadelphia in Round 2. Oh, and Joel Embiid has an iffy knee.
Said McMillan: “We started to finish games. Tonight we finished a series. It was a big step for this team.”
McMillan on Young: “He’s fearless, and he has a skill you need in the playoffs. The NBA has gone to a switching 1-through-5. You’ve got to have guys who can win their matchup. Trae has the ability to win that matchup.”
Then: “I texted him before the playoffs. I told him he was built for this time of the season.”
Said Young, asked if he recalled McMillan’s message: “He didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know.”
This is Young’s team, but the team isn’t all Young. Capela was immense in the middle. De’Andre Hunter made Julius Randle work yet again and scored 15 points himself. The Hawks kept their heads when Randle started flinging elbows, and Nerlens Noel made a point of bumping Young when the first half ended. As new to this as they are, the Hawks realized the Knicks were incapable of winning a game unless the Hawks threw it away. They just had to hold their nerve.
The Hawks hadn’t made the playoffs since 2017. They opened the series as an unknown quantity. We know much more about them now. They’re skilled, yes. They’re tougher than we might have guessed. They lost so often under Pierce that they were primed for McMillan’s steadier hand. Nobody likes to lose. Over three months, the Hawks have learned to win.
Said McMillan: “They continue to just show growth. We knew this would be the hardest game of the season for us. They kept their focus. They believed they could do it, and they did it.”
The world will recall this Round 1 as Young’s moment of arrival. He led the nation in scoring and assists in his one collegiate season, but Oklahoma was one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament. This was his first postseason moment since 2018. “Our mission was to win the series,” he said and, over three games in MSG, he scored 30, 32 and 36 points. Per ESPN, only Michael Jordan had managed that in the playoffs.
McMillan on Young: “Every game he leaves everything he has out on the floor. We wanted to be the aggressor, and it starts with Trae. His shot wasn’t falling but he stayed with it.”
Hawks 103, Knicks 89 (box score)
After draining his final 3-pointer – another cast from the logo – Young bowed to the crowd. All the world’s a stage. “There’s a bunch of shows in this city,” he said, “and I know what they do after the show is done.”
The Hawks made this look easy, so easy that we’re forced to reassess. Are they really this good, or were the Knicks just that bad? Will they feel satisfied after winning one round, or will they be so emboldened that they give the 76ers a real run? “I can breathe a little bit,” said forward John Collins, the first draftee of Travis Schlenk’s rebuild.
Collins again: “Business is not done. We showed in this series that we have a squad that’s serious.”
They did. They rose to the moment. They fed off the New York negativity. They won in five games, won breezing. “We wanted to send them on vacation,” Collins said, borrowing Capela’s line.
Mission accomplished. Now comes Philly. The Hawks won’t be expected to prevail. They just might, though.