ATLANTA — In his pregame media session Friday, Tom Thibodeau was asked about his starting lineup, if he would do what he did in the second half of Game 2: insert his longtime partners, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson.
And with a straight face, he said, "Yeah, I’m still undecided."
You could have conceded him his preference if he’d stuck with Elfrid Payton, whom he had started all season long and through the first two postseason games. And in the heat of an evenly matched playoff series, you could have understood if he had said he had decided to rely on his most trusted lieutenants. But if you are familiar with his meticulous preparation, you could not believe Thibodeau, who leaves no stone unturned, when he said he didn’t know.
His faith in Rose and Gibson was rewarded as they performed as expected, with poise, skill and toughness. The problem for Thibodeau is he didn’t have more of his old confidants with him. The rest of the lineup, including franchise building blocks Julius Randle and RJ Barrett, came up empty and the Knicks were soundly beaten, 105-94, at State Farm Arena as Atlanta took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven first-round series.
By the end of the game, Clint Capela was mimicking Dikembe Mutombo, wagging his finger after a blocked shot. Trae Young was taunting Reggie Bullock, who was hit with a technical foul. Young celebrated by playing to the crowd as Bullock pleaded with the officials.
But in the end, the Knicks had no one to blame but themselves. In the spotlight, they came up small.
Randle, the NBA’s freshly minted Most Improved Player, struggled through a dismal 14-point performance and shot 2-for-15. It was the third straight subpar game in the series for Randle, who averaged 37.3 points against the Hawks in the regular season.
Barrett was even worse, scoring seven points and shooting 2-for-9, including an air ball to put a finishing touch on the night.
"I really can’t put a finger on it," Rose — who had 30 points, six rebounds and five assists — said of the struggles of the two stars. "They’re doubling from weird spots . . . If you know that teams are keying in on you like that, we’ve got to find ways to get them — or get anybody — easy baskets.
You get it mostly in the open court when the defense isn’t set and they’re not locked in on you the way they’ve been."
Without a reliable offense, the Knicks had no chance. For a third straight game, the defense was unable to slow down Trae Young, who had 21 points and 14 assists. The Hawks shot 16-for-27 from beyond the arc and kept the Knicks down by double digits throughout the second half.
"I thought our defense in Game 2 was vital because it got us into the open floor," Thibodeau said. "It got us easy buckets. I didn’t ever think we really got our defense going in this game. We have to understand the intensity that we have to bring to each game."
From the start, Rose carried what little offense the Knicks mounted. Gibson fought inside with Nerlens Noel (12 points, eight rebounds) limited by a sprained right ankle. But they found little help. The Knicks led 31-29 after a quarter, but until Randle hit a last-second three-pointer, Rose and Gibson had shot 7-for-10 between them and the rest of the team was 0-for-13.
The Hawks sent multiple defenders at Randle, and when he made the right pass, the Knicks never made the Hawks pay by connecting on the open shots. The whole team seemingly was stuck in a think-too-much malaise.
"I think we started the game out pretty good," Barrett said. "We were up at the end of the first quarter. It doesn’t really matter. Whoever we have on the court, that’s who it is and we got to go with that. We got to trust Coach, trust each other and just execute."
Julius Randle made 45.6% of his field-goal attempts in the regular season. He is far below that standard in the first three games of the Knicks-Hawks series.
Game 1: 6-for-23
Game 2: 5-for-16
Game 3: 2-for-15
Totals: 13-for-54 (24.1%)