We Have Begun
This is going to be a long series.
Good Morning, or at least, as good of a morning as is be possible after an utterly heartbreaking Game 1 loss last night.
We have lots to digest that we’ll get to in a bit, plus my extended thoughts on what last night’s loss means in light of the anticipation that surrounded the game, but first, a reminder: if you’re not a full subscriber to the newsletter and would like to change that, have at it:
Ok…let’s talk about it.
Game 1: Knicks 105, Hawks 107 - “That one hurt.”
⌚️ Quick Recap: On a night when the Garden was as electric as its been in a long, long time, complete with several shockwaves provided by highlight plays and big shots alike, the Knicks and Hawks battled hard for 48 minutes. Atlanta took command early, and every big Knick shot was seemingly countered by one from the Hawks. It wasn’t until a late 10-0 third quarter run by the home team that it felt like the crowd would be rewarded for their exuberance. New York held a three-point lead with under a minute to go in the fourth thanks to ample heroics from Alec Burks, but in a make-or-miss league, Atlanta just had one more big bucket - a Trae Young runner with under a second to go - than the Knicks could muster.
😭 How They Lost: It’s impossible to put this loss on just one person, because there was certainly more than a one Knick to have a bad game. Bullock and Barrett combined to go 1-for-11 from deep where 4-for-11 probably makes this a comfortable win. For all his shotmaking heroics, Derrick Rose had five costly turnovers. And the starting point guard, well..if he’s the starting point guard for much longer, we may need to start checking his locker for naked photos of the coach, because we’ve passed the point of inexplicability.
But in the end, the playoffs are a time when your best players step up and play their best, and the Knicks best player - their engine who is as responsible for his team’s success as perhaps any player in the NBA - picked a bad night to have his worst game in months.
Julius Randle finished 6-for-23 for 15 points to go with just four assists and three unsightly turnovers. Conversely, Trae Young scored 32 on 11-for-23 with 10 dimes and just two turnovers. A game is never as simple as such a comparison, but it’s pretty darn close.
To his credit, one of Randle’s six makes was a massive three that gave New York a one-point lead with just over two to go, but he also failed to get a shot off in the closing seconds (although the attempt ended up air-balling anyway). In the end, Julius missed a ton of shots he usually makes. It really might be as simple as that.
Not his best, but it’s also almost certain to be his worst in this series.
🔧 Adjustments: The Knicks game plan was obvious from the opening jump, and it really shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone. New York was going to live with Trae Young (and when he sat, Lou Williams) beating them the short mid-range all night long, with the caveat being that they’d try to take away literally everything else.
No Capela lobs. No offensive rebounds. No Young threes, and no dishes to his teammates around the arc.
For the most part, the gambit paid off, specifically where Capela was concerned. He finished the game with just nine points and four offensive rebounds, and while he ended up springing himself for a few alley-oops, the Knicks largely kept their centers home, almost to the point of absurdity:
Young feasted on these short-ish twos all night, and while the math says that it was the correct gamble by New York, the final results on this night suggest differently.
Young was also just 1-of-3 from deep, which bodes well for this strategy, although he was able to generate good looks for others behind the arc after the Knicks diverted from the plan a bit to help on Trae’s drives late in the fourth:
Is there a way for Noel to be a tad more aggressive on some of these drives? It feels like he’s staying glued to the center a beat longer than he needs to.
The reality is that New York is always going to be boxed into these difficult choices as long as it doesn’t have a defender who can keep up with Trae one-one-one and give him issues at the point of attack.
The Knicks tried Bullock on him a few times, but Reggie’s offensive struggles precluded him from receiving extended playing time, and Thibs also seemed to feel more comfortable slotting Bullock onto Bogdanovic. Bogey ended up getting his (18 on 7-for-15 from the field, including some massive threes down the stretch), but most of that came without Reggie in the game.
And then of course there is Frank, who will be the subject of much consternation after he was brought in for defensive purposes at the end of the game and, well…
Should Frank be ashamed of getting beat by one of the five or 10 best players at this particular skill in the entire league? No. Did he fuck up by letting Young get to his strong hand? Yes. Did him coming in cold make a difference? Probably. Is it an excuse? no. Would he have been better off playing off Young a bit and conceding a sliver of daylight on a three? Almost certainly yes. Does this result mean Frank should be glued to the bench for the rest of the series. Hell to the no.
Ntilikina may not be any sort of a Trae stopper, but he’s probably the best option the Knicks have. For 5 or 10 minutes per game, it’s worth a shot.
And wouldn’t you know it, the Knicks just so happen to have 5 to 10 minutes a game available right the hell now:
This wasn’t all on Elf (Randle’s could have given even a hint of a dig here, just maybe) and this sort of blow-by happened with Rose and others throughout the night as well.
The difference - and stop me if you’ve heard this one - is that Payton is offering nothing on the offensive end either. He was 0-for-3 last night, including one godawful midranger that he had no business taking. Thibs played him just eight minutes, his lowest total of the season by over four minutes, and if felt like eight too many.
Payton right now is a shell of a shell of a carcass of a human being that used to pretend to play basketball for a living. The Knicks may have defended well enough to win this game, but it doesn’t mean that these possessions don’t matter. The time for a change is long overdue.
☀️ On the Bright Side: I’m sorry for all the negativity to start this one off. It felt disingenuous to begin with gumdrops and candy canes on a night when we all had our souls collectively ripped out from within. That said, there was a lot to be excited about last night.
If, before the season, someone would have told you that three Knicks, aged 20, 21 and 23, would be responsible for the arguably the three loudest moments the Garden has been privy to in two decades, you’d have signed for that almost regardless of what happened with the rest of the season.
Well, we got our wish.
This wasn’t actually one of the three moments I just referenced - that would be the 3-pointer Toppin made three minutes later - but this play was just as big.
All through the last month or so of the season, we’ve been reminded through little instances like this of how dangerous Obi can be if used appropriately. He was here, and the payoff was obvious.
But he’s also quite clearly the Knicks “other” rookie in this class, and that’s because at 25, they drafted a kid with a flair for the dramatic and range that extends to the Hudson:
Quickley finished the game with just 10 points, but it’s impossible to quantify how meaningful each of those points were as the Knicks tried to shovel out of an 11-point first half deficit. His threes have the same effect as those of Curry and Dame. They invigorate both the team and the crowd in a way that few can.
IQ played 21 minutes in this game, and was pulled late for RJ, who joined Taj, Randle, Burks and Rose in the closing lineup. It was probably the right move, as the Hawks were periodically picking on Quick when they had the ball, and he only made one bucket in the second half.
And speaking of RJ:
Lord have mercy.
I don’t really have the words to describe what this felt like in the moment, but I think the bench reaction says about all you need to know.
Obi Toppin, for instance, looked like a 7-year-old who just walked into F.A.O. Schwarz for the first time.
So yes, the result of the night sucked, but it’s hard not to be excited about some of the stuff we got to see throughout the evening.
💫 Stars of the Game 💫
⭐️ The Crowd: Sorry to be corny here, but even watching at home, I could feel the vibes. Hearing how loud they were made me so goddamn proud to be a Knicks fan.
⭐️ ⭐️ Derrick Rose: Five turnovers aside, Rose was once again excellent, scoring 17 and chipping in five dimes and five boards. His scoring off the bench is always vital, but on a night when the offense had less than nothing, it was even more important than usual.
The former MVP also had several impressive dimes and of course the game-tying bucket with nine seconds remaining. His defense, while far from perfect, was at least up to snuff.
Will he be the one to get the start if Thibs finally pulls the plug on you know who? We’ll find out soon enough.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Alec Burks: This is one of those times when you feel like including a first and second star at all cheapens the whole exercise. Last night, there was Alec Burks, and there was everyone else who played for the Knicks. He was head and shoulders above the crowd.
From the 11-minute mark to the one-minute mark of the fourth, Burks scored 18 of New York’s 30 points. He missed two field goal attempts and one free throw but was otherwise flawless. His triple with under two minutes to go and the Knicks down two would have become the stuff of legend had they won:
Burks ended up with 27 points on just 13 shots. Per Tommy Beer, he’s only the third Knick in the last 40 years to score 27 or more points off the bench in a playoff game, joining John Starks and Latrell Sprewell. Yes, he missed one final jumper with 35 seconds to go that would have given the Knicks the lead back, but no stones shall be cast on this day towards the $6 million man. He was immaculate.
Among the things that make you a bit queasy going into the rest of the series is that a pretty good NBA vet just had literally the playoff game of his life…and his team didn’t end up with a win.
Hopefully he left a little bit in the tank.
🔜 Next Game
The Knicks won’t play Game 2 until Wednesday night.
On To The Next One?
After the game, they not only said all the right things, but they seemed to mean them as well.
First to four. We’ll get the next one. The series is far from over. I need to be better, and I will be better.
That last comment, from Julius Randle, should be the rallying cry for any Knicks fan who chooses to remain optimistic after an absolutely heartbreaking Game 1 loss in New York’s best-of-seven series against the more-than-plucky Atlanta Hawks.
After all, Randle can’t be much worse, and this was still a game the Knicks had a chance to win in the end.
Actually, scratch that…should have won in the end.
Say what you want about Julius going 6-for-23, and he, RJ & Reggie combining to shoot under 33 percent from the field. Yes, in a vacuum, if those guys put up those stats, and the team still has a chance to win, that has to go down as a positive, right?
It should. Because like Randle said, he will be better, as will Barrett and Bullock. Logically, if you get the sorts of games from those three that we’ve come to expect, and everyone else just keeps doing their thing, the rest of this series won’t be close.
But games aren’t won on paper, and sometimes, a sporting event exists outside of itself, in another realm of meaning altogether. Yesterday was one of those games.
Last night, eight years of frustration, anticipation, excitement, angst, hope, prayer, blood, sweat, and a shitload of tears were baked into 15,000 strong at Madison Square Garden. You could tell listening to the players talk about it afterwards. They may have been ready…but they weren’t ready.
Not for that. Not for that crowd, that buzz, that level of admonishment. It felt like one of those storybook evenings you tell your kids or grandkids about. “I was at the Garden when the Knicks were back, and I mean really back…”
That electricity almost helped carry the day on a night when several key Knicks just didn’t have it. That’s a great sign, and a testament not only to the crowd in the building but the bench players they invigorated with their cheers.
But it didn’t matter. Worse yet, it’s not like you can bottle that energy up and bring it with you to the next game. That sort of jolt expires after you use it, like a firework or a bottle of wine. Get it while its hot, because you can’t reheat it. One time offer. When it’s gone, it’s gone.
To their credit, neither the Knicks players nor their coach seemed like a defeated team afterward. To a man, they said they’d have liked to get the win, but coming away empty handed was not painted as a death knell by anyone. Their readiness to watch the film, learn from it, and move onto the next one seemed genuine. They did not sound like a group who had thrown away a winning lottery ticket.
And that’s because they haven’t. This series is far from over. It is first to four, not three or two or one. And if they can hit a few more shots, there’s a damn good chance they win game two.
If they get that, and then take one in Atlanta, the series returns settled on its rightful axis. If that happens, this loss won’t have nearly as dire a meaning as it seems right now. It will be put behind them, just like the 5-8 start which once seemed dispositive on this team’s ceiling.
We’re wiser now. They’ve proven their toughness time and time and time again. Doubt the 2020-21 New York Knicks at your own risk. You won’t be the first to get proven wrong and you probably won’t be the last.
But man, did this feel like a wasted opportunity.
A series that many fans didn’t think was going to be hard has now revealed itself as exactly that. Nothing about Atlanta will come easy. Get annoyed at their wire-cleaner stick figure of a point guard if you want, but he game up huge in his first playoff game in an absolutely impossible environment. He isn’t going away.
Nor will these Hawks. They are more resilient than they look at first glance, and how, they’re playing from ahead.
And maybe that’s exactly where Thibs’ guys will thrive the most: underestimated, with the chips down, and absent the accolades that have followed them around almost since December.
We’ll find out what they’re really made of soon enough, because if one thing is certain, it’s that New York no longer has the luxury of dropping Game 2.
They looked a gift horse in the mouth last night, which maybe won’t matter in the long run.
It just doesn’t feel that way right now.
That’s it for today! If you enjoy this newsletter and like the Mets, don’t forget to subscribe for free to JB’s Metropolitan. See everyone soon! #BlackLivesMatter
Young hit 47 percent from floater range this season, for .94 points per possession. That’s far lower than his average points per possession on open threes or on finishes by either Capela or Collins as the roll man.