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Past playoff opponents Knicks and Hawks going in different directions

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts during the

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts during the first half against the Phoenix Suns at Madison Square Garden, in New York, Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. Credit: Noah K. Murray

ATLANTA — The Knicks returned to State Farm Arena to face the Hawks for the first time in nearly six months after Atlanta spoiled their season in a one-sided playoff series that sent the Knicks into the offseason with an idea about improving their roster.

But the Knicks might have arrived Saturday with more questions than they left with in June. At that time it was a simple thought to add offensive firepower to a team desperately in need of it. While the Hawks brought a seven-game winning streak into the meeting, the Knicks are banged up and maybe more confused about their direction than they were when last season ended.

Derrick Rose, who had claimed the starting point guard role in the playoff series, was sidelined with a sprained right ankle Saturday. Kemba Walker, brought in to provide an offensive boost at point guard, was taking the night off for rest — and the notion that he would opt for rest on a night without Rose and facing Trae Young might be more alarming than his play so far this season.

The Knicks also were without Taj Gibson, who along with Rose stepped into starting jobs in the playoffs last season when Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau went with longtime trusted allies. With injuries and the instability of those two, this might not represent a true picture of what the Knicks are right now, but what they are is still troublesome.

The defense is worse than it was last season. The offense remains mired in isolation with the major difference being that rather than Julius Randle serving as the focal point, this season they seem to take turns isolating rather than creating opportunities for each other.

Atlanta, on the other hand, seems to be building on last season’s success. While they finished in a virtual tie with the Knicks last season — the Knicks getting the homecourt advantage due to the head-to-head regular-season record — the Hawks advanced all the way to the Eastern Conference finals after knocking out the Knicks in five games.

Young cemented his status as a rising NBA star in the series and had at least 30 points and 10 assists in each of the two games prior to Saturday, leading the team back up the standings after a slow start due to a tough road trip. While they were without DeAndre Hunter, who is out for eight weeks following wrist surgery and was a defensive force in the playoffs last season, they are relatively healthy and mostly intact.

"I think the chemistry builds and seems to be better," Atlanta coach Nate McMillan said. "We’re better connected defensively out there. Offensively, we’ve got good ball movement. We’re just playing better basketball."

The Knicks entered Saturday night just a half game behind Atlanta in the Eastern Conference standings, but with far more question marks. McMillan acknowledged that the success of the Hawks in the playoffs, limiting Randle and forcing Thibodeau to turn to Rose as his most reliable offensive option, might have precipitated the Knicks’ roster moves.

"Yeah, with Fournier and Walker, adding guys like that to your roster, and their ability to score, put the ball in the basket," McMillan said. "[Immanuel] Quickley played really good basketball for them last year, doing the same thing this year. You have Rose, you have a number of guys on that roster that are capable of doing that. Again, last year we did a good job on Randle but it was those other guys we had to contain and make sure that they didn’t get off as well. They have even more firepower this year with the addition of Walker."

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