With their backs to the walls, the Knicks were already set on taking the court at Madison Square Garden Wednesday night for Game 5 of the opening-round playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks with everything they’ve got.
But if Tom Thibodeau needed a bit of inspiration for his struggling team, Atlanta Hawks center Clint Capela was happy to provide it — a parting shot delivered before what the Hawks hope is the final knockout blow. While the Hawks expect to get the Knicks' best effort, Capela said that the physical play of the Knicks has not been enough so far — and it won’t be now.
"They’re trying to play tough, push our guys around, talk . . . " Capela said. "But we can do that, too. We show them as soon as we came back here. We can push guys around, too, we can talk as well, so what you going to do about it? And we can get a win with it. So what you going to do about it?
"Oh, Game 4 you’re coming back again? Well, it’s going to happen again. Win the game. We talked and pushed you around, so what are you going to do about it? So that’s what happened. We can do it, too. We can be physical, but we can win games as well. Now we’re coming to your home to win this game again, to send you on vacation."
The Knicks refused to bite on a war of words, Julius Randle answering every question about Capela’s word with "Don’t care" and Derrick Rose, who has been through many postseason wars, simply responding, " I’m 32 years old. I never talked like that in my life and I’m not going to start now because Clint Capela’s started talking crazy. It don’t get to us like that . . . I’m told old for that."
But if Capela is sure that the Hawks have responded in kind and that the Knicks' toughness on display throughout the season is not a concern, RJ Barrett did note, "We’ll see tomorrow."
The play has been physical throughout the series, but late in Game 4 in Atlanta, with the outcome no longer in doubt, tempers flared. The Knicks believed that Danilo Gallinari delivered a cheap shot to Reggie Bullock, coming behind him with a blow to his back. Bullock tried to make a run toward the Atlanta bench as the teams headed to a timeout and when play resumed Randle delivered a forearm shiver to Gallinari.
"As the leader of my team, I can’t let that happen," Randle said after the game. "I wasn’t trying to hurt him. You’ve got a situation where, whatever it is, take a hard foul and just to let them know that we’re not accepting that [expletive] here."
But Capela said that the Hawks were not impressed.
"There are two ways of being physical," Capela said. "There’s when you keep playing the right way. There’s physical when you’re trying to play dirty. This is two different games. We’re playing hard because we’re playing the right way and win games that way.
"[The Randle flagrant foul] says it all. You don’t have any more solution but playing that way. You think you’re playing hard doing fouls like that. This is not the game. If you can’t play hard the right way, this is not playing hard. Flagrant fouls, those are not in-the- game fouls. So you’re just trying to look physical but it’s not working. It’s kind of the last solution."
Thibodeau, raised on a coaching staff where Jeff Van Gundy would relish such motivational fodder, would not play along for the media portion of it at least. But he had little doubt that his team would come to play Wednesday.
"I think it’s all about persistence, determination, your fight," Thibodeau said. "It’s playoff basketball. There’s ups, there’s downs. You have to navigate through it all. And whatever your circumstances are, you have to have the ability to rise above those circumstances. So this team has done it all year. Just lock in, focus on what needs to be done."
"I just think this is who we are as a team," Randle added. "We’ve been counted out all year. Odds have been stacked against us, according to experts or whoever the hell you want to call it all year. And this is where we’re comfortable. Obviously, we’re not going out without a fight and we're not even worrying about that. We have the ultimate confidence and belief in who we are as a team, that we can get it done. This is where we're comfortable, being in uncomfortable situations."