ATLANTA — There are things the Knicks can tell themselves as they try to put Game 3 behind them and prepare for Sunday afternoon’s next test against the Atlanta Hawks.
This was just one game. The dominating performance by the Hawks doesn’t need to carry over.
Julius Randle will come around and play the way he did in the regular season. Ditto for RJ Barrett.
With film and practice, the defense will be back.
They just need this game Sunday to even the series, regain home-court advantage and continue their attempt to shatter every expectation for this team.
They can tell themselves those things. But can they believe them? What have they shown in this series that tells them that any of this is an illusion?
Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau took a calming tone Saturday after watching film, trying to keep his players on track and tuning out the outside noise — as well as the sound of more than 15,000 screaming Hawks fans at State Farm Arena.
"This is normal, this is the playoffs," Thibodeau said. "It’s going to be intense. There’s going to be ups and downs. You have to navigate through everything. Sometimes it’s going your way, sometimes it’s not. Stay together, keep fighting, keep working, do all the things that have gotten us here. But that’s all normal for the playoffs. There’s an intensity to it. Just stay focused on how we can improve and get better."
For the Knicks, the urgency is to get back in the series, but it goes deeper than that. In a season that has been a revelation for a long-beaten-down franchise, the Knicks believed they showed a path forward with a coach in Thibodeau who could create magic from a roster that few had faith in, an emerging cornerstone piece in Randle and a 20-year-old on the verge of joining him in Barrett.
The frustration has mostly been circulating around Randle, who carried the Knicks through the regular season with a complete season on the floor and leadership on and off it. But he has been stymied through the first three games, shooting 13-for-54. Barrett is 13-for-38, leaving Derrick Rose as the only steady contributor. He has averaged 24.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.7 assists.
Even the insertion of Rose into the starting lineup caused more consternation, with Elfrid Payton’s mother turning to social media to tweet "How that work out for you! #ProudMama" in response to the Knicks' account posting a starting lineup that didn’t include Payton for the first time.
When Atlanta’s John Collins was asked after the Knicks' 105-94 Game 3 loss if Randle seemed frustrated, he replied, "I really don’t care. I hope so."
"Just be Julius," Thibodeau said. "I don’t want him overthinking it. Play freely, let the game come to you. The game will tell you the play. Sometimes you’re gonna get your shots, sometimes you’re gonna make the play. That’s what he’s done extremely well all year long.
"The one thing about Julius, I’ve said this all along. He’s our engine. He’s a fighter. He’s tough. He’s smart. He’ll figure it out. "
But now the Knicks must prove that critics' statements that Thibodeau’s magic was a parlor trick are not accurate. The doubters say the Knicks benefited from Thibodeau's focus and intensity during a regular season that was anything but regular, with COVID, injuries and a condensed schedule often leaving opponents not matching the Knicks' level of work. In the playoffs, the Hawks have tried to match the Knicks bead of sweat for bead of sweat, elbow for elbow.
"We knew coming into the series that’s how their team has been all year," Kevin Huerter said. "They’ve played really hard. They can get at you defensively just with their physicality and their effort, and we couldn’t let them push us around and be more intense than us. We feel like the second half of Game 2, they got to their game and kind of punked us a little bit. They got physical and we didn’t respond in a great way. Being back on our home court, we definitely tried to clean some stuff up."
If the Knicks' edge was expected to be their effort, intensity and attention to detail, the Hawks have relied on the dazzling offensive talents of Trae Young. The Hawks found an answer to the Knicks' effort, but the Knicks have yet to find a way to contain Young. He is averaging 27.7 points and 10.3 assists per game.
Rose spoke earlier in the series of a need to put a body into Young, make him uncomfortable, but even as Rose entered the starting lineup, it hasn't happened. Reggie Bullock got the bulk of the defensive assignment Friday and came away as frustrated defensively as most of the Knicks were offensively, drawing a technical when he shoved Collins, who came to Young’s defense.
"Nothing happened, a little chippiness," Collins said. "He was staring down my dude, I walked over, trying to ease whatever tension was going on. I don’t know what he felt I was doing, shoved me and got a tech. I don’t know if he was upset. No words were said. We head to the line, make our free throw."
The Knicks insist that they are ignoring the outside noise.
"I don’t really hear any of that stuff," Barrett said. "I’ve never been one to care about that stuff, honestly. Always confident in my game, confident in the team. We’ve been doing it all year. We’re in the playoffs for a reason … We’ve got to come in and be the harder-working team."