Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau during game against the Atlanta...

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau during game against the Atlanta Hawks at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, Dec. 25, 2021. Credit: Errol Anderson

It was a Christmas story without a villain.

No Grinch. No Scrooge. No Mr. Potter. Not even an Abominable Snow Monster.

And, alas, no Trae Young.

Boo who?!?

It certainly was not what the NBA and ESPN envisioned when they scheduled the Knicks and Hawks to tip off the league’s annual holiday quintupleheader at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.

Young was supposed to be a convenient target after beating the Knicks on the court in last season’s first-round playoff series and annoying their fans by reveling in their dislike of him.

But perhaps the most delicious Garden antagonist since Reggie Miller was unable to participate Saturday as the Knicks defeated severely depleted Atlanta, 101-87, because he has spent the past week in COVID-19 protocols.

The Hawks had eight players in the health and safety protocols, while the Knicks continued to improve on that front and get closer to reassembling their roster.

RJ Barrett and Quentin Grimes returned to action on Saturday. Barrett shot erratically in scoring nine points but Grimes looked good off the bench, scoring 15 points on 5-for-12 shooting from three-point range.

Immanuel Quickley and Kevin Knox are close to returning to action, but before the game, coach Tom Thibodeau said both needed more conditioning work.

Obi Toppin came out of health and safety protocols Wednesday. That leaves only Nerlens Noel and Miles McBride still on the list, which briefly included seven members last week. Derrick Rose is out for at least two months because of ankle surgery.

Thibodeau said Barrett needs more time to get sharp. He was 4-for-15 from the field on Saturday, including 1-for-8 from three-point range.

Before the game, Thibodeau said every player’s conditioning approach during their time in the health and safety protocols differs.

"You talk to the player, you talk to the medical staff," he said. "Some guys don’t have symptoms so they can do more; some guys do, so they do less. You have to see where they are when they come back. Safety comes first."

Knicks fans seemed to remember last season's playoff matchup when the Hawks were introduced on Saturday, as the visitors were greeted by loud boos.

But while the absence of Young obviously improved the Knicks’ chances of winning, it was a blow to the narrative juice surrounding the rematch.

Young averaged 29.2 points and 9.8 assists in the Hawks’ five-game elimination of the Knicks in last season’s first playoff round and seemed to greatly enjoy rubbing his success in the faces of Knicks fans.

"Trae was really excited to have that opportunity to play [on Christmas], and unfortunately with the situation, he won’t be able to," coach Nate McMillan said before the game. "We know he’ll be supporting and watching."

The Hawks are scheduled to return to the Garden on March 22.


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