Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks reacts after drawing a foul...

Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks reacts after drawing a foul against the Indiana Pacers on March 13, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia.  Credit: Getty Images/Kevin C. Cox

It was just nine months ago, and in the final minute of the Knicks' season, when  the Madison Square Garden crowd stood and cheered for the team one final time. The finishing touches were being put in place by the Atlanta Hawks and Trae Young in the opening round of the playoffs. And as the fans applauded the Knicks, Young drained a long three-point field goal as an exclamation point, taking a bow at center court.

Young and the Hawks are back Tuesday night, and while both teams have endured disappointing seasons, Young has the chance to drive another stake into the hearts of the Knicks and their fans.

The Knicks' hopes of making it to the postseason have been dim for months, but after a disappointing loss to Utah on Sunday night, they fell five games behind the final play-in spot held by the Hawks and 6 1/2 behind Charlotte with only 11 games left on the schedule.

It’s a long way from last season, when the Knicks and Hawks were battling for the fourth and fifth seeds, but you can be sure that it’s the sort of situation that Young will revel in again: a chance to push the Knicks another step toward the lottery. The countdown to the official end to their playoff hopes could be determined in the next two days with Atlanta at the Garden on Tuesday and the Knicks in Charlotte on Wednesday.

“I’ve said it,” RJ Barrett said. “We’re going to go and try to win every single game, take it one game at a time. They’re a team that’s ahead of us, so this will be a big opportunity for us.”

As dismal as the season has been and as dark as it looked after the loss Sunday that left  coach Tom Thibodeau talking about an untimely lack of energy and Julius Randle frustrated and angry, the Knicks do still hold a slim chance at working their way into the play-in.

The immediate schedule is a test. The back-to-back set with the game in Charlotte starts the last multi-city road trip of the season. The Knicks will move on to Miami and Detroit before returning to New York for the second game in two nights, this time against the Bulls.

The problem for the Knicks is that there have been too many failed tests, and Sunday marked one more.

“I thought we fought, but it felt like we were a step behind most of the night,” Thibodeau said after the Knicks saw an opportunity slip away. “ . . . It requires high energy. And I felt like, normally we’ve been pretty high energy. As a team I thought we were behind tonight.”

The Knicks beat the Hawks in their first three meetings this season, but they were 3-0 against them last season before falling in five games in the playoffs. So with one important game awaiting them, can they keep Young from waving goodbye to them again?


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