Taking the court at Madison Square Garden Wednesday night the Knicks found themselves in a place where few thought they’d be, hosting another postseason night before more than 16,000 fans, in the spotlight rather than the lottery and playing with their season on the line.
It would have been bold to predict this, even in their own locker room, when the season began with low expectations and a pandemic raging that had restricted the resumption of the previous season to a bubble restart and the start of this season to empty arenas with tarps spread over the seats.
But if few would have predicted the Knicks could be here, still playing for something magical and inspiring, the Knicks wouldn’t have predicted that they’d be in the circumstances they took the court with on this night, clinging to their postseason dreams. In the end, that is all they were as the Knicks were ousted in five games by the Hawks, who finished them off with a convincing 103-89 win.
The Knicks entered the night with their backs to the wall, the uncomfortable place that they insisted was where they were most comfortable. They’d spent two days having Clint Capela’s comments about being a phony tough team. The Knicks didn’t talk back, other than a prediction from RJ Barrett, dismissing questions about the season ending with a bold, "I ain’t thinking about that. We’re winning tonight."
Toughness, resiliency and overachieving were the descriptions that had brought the Knicks this far and now with a chance to prove them true, but they rang hollow, like the prediction. In the end, every flaw was exposed. The toughness couldn’t match the Hawks and neither could the talent and now the Knicks will head into an uncertain offseason searching for a way to build on this season and push aside the disappointing ending.
"I told our guys this, I'm proud of what our team accomplished this year," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Obviously, disappointed with the result tonight. Hopefully, we can learn and get better from it. But I thought our guys gave us everything they had all year long."
Potentially heading into the summer with more salary-cap space than any other team, two first-round picks and a load of free agents of their own, team president Leon Rose has his work cut out for him.
"It's tough for me to process that and look at it from that point of view right now," Julius Randle said. "Right now I'm just focused on this series, what went wrong, what we can do better, how I can improve. So I’m sure there will be a time to look at those things, but right now is not."
For this night though the work was for the group in place and what there clearly was not in place was anyone who could handle Trae Young, who dominated the series from start to finish. Young orchestrated from the very beginning and when the Knicks made their last, futile push in the fourth quarter he again took charge, driving to the rim and putting his finger to his lips to quiet the crowd, before following with a long three-pointer. With 43 seconds left he hit a long three and bowed to the crowd, playing the part of the villain one more time. Young finished with 36 points and nine assists.
"I know where we are," Young said. "I know there are a lot of shows in this city and I know what they do when the show is over."
For the Knicks there were no heroes this time. Randle, who had carried them through so much of the season, struggled through the series and on this night, played his worst. The 23 points and 13 rebounds might read well someday, but midway through the third quarter he had already piled up seven of his eight turnovers without an assist and mostly looked frustrated. Derrick Rose, who banged up his knee last game, was a shadow of what he had been in the series and no one stepped forward.
If the Knicks were going to come out breathing fire in the wake of Capela’s comments it seemed as if the Garden crowd felt it more than the players. While loud and hopeful chants of, "De-fense" echoed throughout the arena, Young wove his way through the Knicks with ease and a quick 6-0 Atlanta lead. It didn’t come right away, but the animosity began to play out as the game progressed. There was a review for a possible flagrant against Randle and shortly after, Taj Gibson was called for a Flagrant 1 when he banged a shoulder into De’Andre Hunter on a layup attempt.
That was a prelude though to the intermission when it seemed like boxers heading to their corners. First, Young and Bullock exchanged words under the basket with John Collins stepping in to defend the diminutive point guard. Then as the teams crossed paths on the way to the locker room Atlanta’s Solomon Hill bumped a shoulder into the chest of Nerlens Noel. That drew both teams into a scrum and Noel, Hill and Randle were all assessed technical fouls — with Young hitting a free throw as the teams came back out to give the Hawks a 53-47 advantage.