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Knicks-Hawks matchups: Tom Thibodeau could be the difference-maker in first-round series

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts during the

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts during the second quarter against the Nets at Barclays Center on March 15, 2021. Credit: Jim McIsaac

After exceeding expectations in a strange and — for Atlanta, at times tumultuous — season, the Knicks and Hawks arrive for the postseason and present a matchup that is intriguing and no longer bound by surprises.

Tom Thibodeau will no doubt have black circles around his eyes after countless hours of film watching and game planning, but even if he gets his second NBA Coach of the Year Award for his work in the regular season, this is exactly the sort of task at which he thrives. Nate McMillan has been even better in an abbreviated run in Atlanta this season since taking over as interim head coach on March 1.

In the offseason, these two teams presented a contrast, with the Knicks taking a cautious approach to the rebuild while the Hawks executed a sign-and-trade for Danilo Gallinari, signed Bogdan Bogdanovic and then at the trade deadline sent out Rajon Rondo to bring back Lou Williams. The Knicks' moves were more under-the-radar: Nerlens Noel, who turned out to be a key acquisition; Derrick Rose arriving in February; and Taj Gibson signing after being left off any NBA roster at the start of the season.

But it might be the work of the coaches that matters most as they navigate inexperienced squads through the rigors of a seven-game series. Thibodeau took a team without a dominant defensive player and made them the top-ranked NBA team in opponents' field-goal percentage, three-point percentage and points against per game. They became just the second team in NBA history to do that — the other was the Pat Riley-led 1992-93 Knicks that won 60 games and went to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The positional matchups:

POINT GUARD

Elfrid Payton vs. Trae Young

It’s hard to even discuss this matchup since Payton has seen his minutes cut until he has become almost a non-factor with barely backup minutes. Thibodeau praises his defense, but can his physicality and size match up with the speed and offensive arsenal of Young? Rose and Alec Burks will get the bulk of the minutes here, but the real defender will have to be Thibodeau, who must figure out a way to negate Young. Edge: Hawks

WING

RJ Barrett vs. Bogdan Bogdanovic

While most pinpoint the Hawks' coaching change as the turning point, it also coincided with the return of Bogdanovic from a fractured right knee. Off to a slow start before the injury, Bogdanovic has provided a perfect complement to Young and John Collins. Barrett has been the Knicks' second cornerstone behind Julius Randle but also is plagued with offensive inconsistency at just 20 years old. Edge: Hawks

WING

Reggie Bullock vs. DeAndre Hunter

Kevin Huerter has been starting in the backcourt, but Hunter returned from his partially torn meniscus in the final week of the season and it’s likely he’ll be back in the lineup — and might get the assignment of defending Randle. Bullock has not garnered the credit or attention, but he has been a reliable starter for the Knicks, taking on the toughest defensive wing assignment and providing increasingly dangerous three-point shooting. Only the uncertainty about Hunter’s health and rust gives this to the Knicks. Edge: Knicks

POWER FORWARD

Julius Randle vs. John Collins

Two players with something to prove in the postseason. Randle has emerged not only as the most improved player in the NBA, but he is the clear leader of the Knicks and a top 10 MVP candidate. Collins is playing for what he believes is a massive contract coming his way in free agency. While the Hawks' defense will be geared to slowing Randle, he has managed to avoid the struggles of doing too much, instead making the right plays in Thibodeau’s offense. Edge: Knicks

CENTER

Nerlens Noel vs. Clint Capela

When Mitchell Robinson was lost to a series of injuries the Knicks managed to still thrive thanks to Noel’s performance as well as the work of Gibson. Noel ranked second in blocks per game (2.2), one spot ahead of Capela and was third behind Rudy Gobert and Randle in defensive win-shares. Capela has not only piled up blocks but is averaging 15.2 points and 14.3 rebounds, numbers that dwarf the production of Noel. Edge: Hawks

BENCH

The Knicks have been boosted by the depth off the bench this season with Rose arguably the second-most important player on the roster. Alec Burks, Immanuel Quickley and Gibson have been huge contributors. But the Hawks have tremendous depth, too. If they insert Hunter back in the starting lineup the grouping of Gallinari, Williams and Huerter is dangerous offensively. Edge: Even

COACH

Can a coach get an MVP vote?

No, but Thibodeau certainly has been the difference-maker in New York. And so, too, has been McMillan in Atlanta. But it’s hard to argue that the Knicks don’t have the edge here. Thibodeau not only has had teams that overachieved in the regular season, but they've done it in the postseason, too. He's taken undermanned squads to a 24-32 record in the playoffs as a head coach (and won a championship as an assistant in Boston). McMillan was pushed out in Indiana after being swept out of the first round in three of four seasons. He’s got a 17-36 record in the playoffs with just one series win. Edge: Knicks

INJURIES

While both teams are basically at full strength with the Knicks missing just Robinson and the Hawks only without Cam Reddish, there still are concerns. Rose struggled with an ankle injury in the final week of the season. The Hawks' Hunter is just returning from a partially-torn meniscus.

THE X-FACTORS

Hunter’s health: If Hunter is back at full strength he gives the Hawks their best shot at finding a player who can defend Randle.

Youth served: While Rose and Gibson have plenty of postseason experience with Thibodeau, Randle, Barrett and Quickley are newcomers to the playoffs. Same goes for Young, Hunter and Collins with Atlanta.

The Sixth Man: The CDC updates have opened up the arenas to much larger crowds, with fans eager to be in attendance and to be heard and felt.

PREDICTION

I didn’t predict the Knicks to win 41 games, to earn the fourth seed in the playoffs and home-court advantage. So I’m not going to bet against Thibodeau this time. With home court, health and a deep, if not star-laden squad, he should be able to continue to shock the basketball world. KNICKS IN 7.

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