ATLANTA — The Knicks entered this season with few expectations from anyone outside of their locker room. And now, as they head to what might be their final game, they find themselves facing the same doubts.
The 41 wins in the regular season, the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference and a star turn for Julius Randle brought the team to a place few believed they would be. But now, after a 113-96 loss to the Hawks left them in a 3-1 deficit in their best-of-seven first-round playoff series, they are staring at a disappointing end to their dream season.
The Knicks left the floor Sunday to a serenade of "Hawks in five" chants. To extend their season beyond Wednesday, they need to play far better in Game 5 at the Garden than what they showed here.
"I like our chances," Randle said when asked about the imposing task the team faces. "I like our chances. But it all starts with Game 5. I think it’s all we can focus on. To answer your question, I love our chances."
Randle again struggled and had no answer not only for the Hawks’ defenders but also for the crowd of better than 15,000 at State Farm Arena who serenaded him for two games with chants of "Overrated!"
Tom Thibodeau had no answers either. The Knicks were overwhelmed by the Hawks’ talent and unable to mount any sort of defense for the Trae Young-led attack.
"The playoffs are different," Thibodeau said. "We’ve got guys that are getting experience for the first time. But we’re capable. We’ve got to go home and just figure out how to play well in that game, just take it step by step."
Randle went to the bench with 3:05 remaining, his frustration finally bubbling over as he shoved Danilo Gallinari. He was assessed a flagrant-1 foul, and with the game out of reach, he was removed from the game by Thibodeau.
Randle believed that he was standing up for Reggie Bullock, who was elbowed in the back by Gallinari in what seemed like an unintentional battle under the boards, but as the teams went to the bench for a timeout, Bullock ran toward the Hawks’ bench before being intercepted by teammates.
"Gallinari had a dirty play on Reggie," Randle said. "As the leader of my team, I can’t let that happen. 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."
Randle drew high-fives from teammates but little consolation. His 23 points and 10 rebounds looked far better in the boxscore than on the court as he was a minus-17 in his 36 minutes. He shot 7-for-19 and is 20-for-73 in the series.
Young toyed with the Knicks at times, finishing with 27 points, nine assists and two turnovers — and, more importantly, keeping them frustrated. Midway through the second quarter, he hit a mid-range jumper, drew a foul on Bullock and stared at Taj Gibson.
"I’m just trying to keep it basketball," Young said. "I don’t care if they’re in their feelings, who’s mad and who’s not. It’s basketball at the end of the day and we’re just trying to win."
Gibson responded in short order with a layup, a steal that led to RJ Barrett’s layup and then a message for the Hawks.
In the final minute of the first half, Gallinari fed John Collins cutting along the baseline for what looked like a highlight dunk. But as Collins prepared to slam it, Gibson shifted over and sent him crashing to the floor with a hard foul. Collins converted the free throws, but a message was sent straight out of the 1990s Knicks — no layups, per the rulebooks of Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy.
Still, the Knicks seemed to dodge a bullet late in the first half. Just as a 13-0 run had done them in late in the second quarter Friday, they surrendered an 8-0 run this time, turning a one-point lead into a 51-44 deficit.
They Knicks managed to go into the half trailing just 53-49, but Atlanta came out of the break and ran off a 10-2 burst to stretch the lead to 12. Ahead by seven, the Hawks then ran off 10 straight points and extended the lead to as many as 26 points. For the second straight game, the Knicks never led for a second in the second half.
Collins had 22 points and Gallinari added 21.
"They were all over the place as you expect them to be, especially at home," Gibson said of the Hawks. "We were playing pretty good, but we’ve just got to learn how to stay focused. That’s part of playoff basketball . . . It’s all a part of just the learning curve of our team. Guys are optimistic. We’ve been counted down the whole year. This is really nothing new. We’re just looking forward to the next game."