The Atlanta Hawks pounded the shit out of the New York Knicks Sunday afternoon, by the terribly misleading score of 113-96, to take a 3-1 lead in their opening-round series. The Hawks, fluid and frisky and playing in front of an enthusiastic home crowd, appear to have more or less solved New York’s dominant regular-season defense, whereas the Knicks, plodding along at the same doomed shit over and over again while head coach Tom Thibodeau looks offended that the doomed shit isn’t working, appear lost. It’s a classic contrast of styles: One side is smart and flexible, and the other is stubborn and dumb. Whether stubborn and dumb can take another game off smart and flexible before smart and flexible inevitably advances to the next round looks increasingly like the only thing left to settle in this series. This deeply embarrassing moment now seems like one million years ago:
About those Hawks: They don’t have a lot of playoff experience, but what they do have is a lot of perimeter playmaking and shooting, and a dominant rim protector who cleans up a lot of mistakes and neutralizes a lot of physical mismatches with rock-solid interior defense. They’ve got vulnerabilities that will be difficult to overcome against better playoff teams, but to their enormous credit they don’t waste a lot of time fighting themselves. The Hawks under Nate McMillan do sound playoff shit: they hunt mismatches; they skip arduous scripted offense and get right into attack mode; they identify the opponent’s weak spot and stay after it; they put their guys in places where they can threaten a defense and then are willing to use them when the opportunity strikes. They are, in other words, good.
The Knicks, at least in this series, have been the total opposite. Possessions seem to have no goal beyond proving that Julius Randle, a lefty, can drive with his right hand. They seem interested in positional mismatches, but not in particularly advantageous ones: On a hearty handful of possessions per game, all offensive action will grind to a halt so that Alec Burks—Alec Burks—can work one-on-one against Danilo Gallinari or Clint Capela, while Trae Young, by a wide margin the weakest defensive player on either team, hides in the corner pretending to check Derrick Rose. Thibodeau seems to have internalized the idea that playoff basketball often resolves as a series of late-clock isolation sequences to such a degree that his offense skips right past even the possibility that passing and screening and moving might lead to easier buckets. Rather than make the Hawks work to force isolations, he has his guys thudding again and again against Atlanta’s ideal defensive alignment. It’s self-defeating as hell, but at least it’s also awful television.
A dismal, hideous late-game possession that exemplified New York’s offensive approach, or lack thereof: Two guards—possibly Rose and Reggie Bullock—feebly executed a pair of screens near the top of the key, presumably to trigger a switch and get Young isolated on Rose; the Hawks used half-hearted little traps to slow the action and give Young time to scamper back to his man; all Knicks players and coaches appeared completely flummoxed by Atlanta’s refusal to switch. After the second screen Randle jogged up to the top of the key and interrupted his own team’s offense in order to demand the ball; the four non-Randle Knicks just sort of fanned out loosely around the perimeter and watched Randle, who took two sloppy dribbles toward the baseline and then, when the Hawks failed to roll out a red carpet to the cup, pitched the ball pointlessly to Obi Toppin, standing not-at-all-open in the strong-side corner. Toppin, a hopeless defensive player who is afraid to catch and shoot and also is not allowed to do things with the ball, had nowhere to go. He took one pump fake, looked around to see if anyone on his own team was going to stop him, and then just threw the ball toward the basket, where it was rebounded by a Hawks player. This was at least the 1,000th Knicks possession in this game with this same basic shape, by my count.
To make matters worse—or at least more embarrassing—Randle picked up a Flagrant 2 foul for throwing a forearm at Gallinari in early garbage time, and was ejected. If there is a silver lining for Knicks fans, it’s that there’s a very thin chance Randle could be suspended for Game 5, which at this point would only help New York’s offense. Randle was 7-of-19 from the floor Sunday afternoon; for the series he’s shooting 24 percent and has as many turnovers as assists. Thibodeau encouraged Randle before Game 4 to not “make it complicated,” and to keep shooting the same shots he took and made all regular season, but a longstanding criticism of Thibodeau is that he too often seems to expect the same actions that carried his team through the regular season to lead to playoff success. Randle’s relentless tenacity and confidence are the kind of thing that will reliably overwhelm crappy regular-season teams. Playoff teams are better and more organized, and make plans for disrupting the shit that worked in the regular season, and just keep making those same shots is not necessarily a recipe for success.
It’s an oft-repeated maxim from the lean last couple, ah, decades of New York basketball that the playoffs are just better with the Knicks in there. Let this miserable contest, and indeed the bulk of what’s happened across this series, serve as a stark rebuttal. This Knicks team has been absolutely horrible to watch in the playoffs, and unless they turn things around pretty dramatically the playoffs will be better the very moment these bozos are karate-kicked into the offseason.