The New York Knicks were projected to crawl through another disappointing season in their constant rebuild. However, the Knicks defied expectations, building a remarkable defensive team that managed to keep pace with the rest of the pack.
The Knicks ended the season as the East’s 4th seed, capping the year with a win over Boston to break what was close to a 3-team deadlock for 4th place. New York caught fire towards the end of the season, and a 9-game winning streak was instrumental in their ascension up the standings.
In round one, the Knicks’ defensive prowess will be tested as they take on the Atlanta Hawks.Led by dynamic third-year guard Trae Young, Atlanta has been one of a handful of teams putting up wild numbers each night.
While the Knicks were able to win all three games between the two, the Hawks did not go quietly. All three matchups were tightly contested, with the Knicks finding separation in the final minutes.
The third contest between the two came during New York’s impressive winning streak, and the two teams fought hard in a game that came down to the wire. A Julius Randle basket gave the Knicks a late lead, but in the dying seconds Bogdan Bogdonovic sent the game into Overtime.
In Overtime, Randle put the finishing touches on his monster 40-point night. The Knicks’ breakout star picked up three points, two assists, and a rebound in the extra period as New York outscored Atlanta 15-5 to win 137-127.
In the game, all five Hawks starters recorded double digit points, with Trae Young, Clint Capella, and Bogdonovic each scoring over 20. Aside from Randle, the only Knicks to score 20 came off the bench. Huge games from Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley kept New York in the game as the backcourt reserves made an impressive impact.
If the Knicks can hold Atlanta's scoring and take advantage of their lackluster defense, they should be able to take the series. Still, the Knicks may have some trouble on rebounds, something that has been a pivotal part of their game.
Hawks center Clint Capela had another monstrous season, this time averaging a career-best and NBA-leading 14.3 rebounds-per-game. While containing Young is a must for the Knicks, beating Capela for rebounds could be the key to a first round victory for the Knicks.
The season sweep gives New York home court as the two ended with identical 41-31 records.
Playoff basketball hasn't been played at Madison Square Garden since 2013, and with fans allowed back in the building, the 'Mecca of Basketball' is sure to be rocking when the Knicks and Hawks open their series on Sunday.
Across town, the Nets are also preparing to host their first round matchup. Unlike their crosstown rivals, Brooklyn had to wait until Tuesday night to find out their opponent, the winner of the Celtics/Wizards play-in game.
Brooklyn closed the season on Sunday with a dominant win over the Cavs, solidifying their spot as the East's second seed.
No play-in opponent should be much of a test for the Nets in the opening round, but if they advance, they'll play the 3rd seeded Milwaukee Bucks or defending Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat.
The Nets breezed by Boston in the regular season, sweeping the season series, but injuries have halted any hopes of a Celtics playoff run. After losing Jaylen Brown to a season-ending wrist surgery, Boston lacks the pieces they need to keep pace with the top teams in the East.
Jayson Tatum put up 50 points in Boston's play-in win over Washington, but he'll likely have to average that through the upcoming series if the Celtics want to make it a series.
When Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and James Harden take the floor on Saturday night for Game 1, it will be just the 9th time they play together. In Brooklyn's eight games with their Big Three, they've gone 6-2.
Even without a consistent lineup, the Nets put together a franchise record season, finishing at 48-24 for a .667 winning percentage. Their second best season came in 2002, when they finished at 52-30 for a .634 winning percentage en route to a trip to the NBA Finals, beating Boston on the way.
A long season of thrilling basketball has finally reached its conclusion, and this year all eyes are on New York as the Nets and Knicks get set to tip-off.
The Nets host the Celtics on Saturday, May 22nd at 8pm.
The Knicks host the Hawks on Sunday, May 23rd (time TBA).