Photo: Brett Davis/USA Today Sports
Analyze what went wrong with the Knicks in this playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks all you want. Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau can try to fix it by watching the film until his eyes become red from watching it. The Knicks players can work hard in practice to improve themselves.
Here’s the cold, hard truth: The Hawks are just the better team.
Your eyes tell you that in the three games you watched. Thibodeau has no answers to stop Trae Young and the Hawks shooters no matter how much strategy he devises. The Knicks players have no answers to the Hawks players on defense and offense.
This explains why the Hawks have a 3-1 series lead after a 113-96 Game 4 victory Sunday afternoon at State Farm Arena. Be surprised the Knicks have not gotten swept. If Hawks coach Nate McMillan did not bench Young for a long stretch in the second half of Game 2 when the Knicks made their run, the Knicks would likely have lost that game, too.
The Hawks display swagger going back to Game 1. They can shoot their shots, and they make it more often than not. They know the Knicks can do nothing to stop them. Game 4 might as well be a carbon copy of Game 3. In Game 4, they hit 15 3-pointers, and they shot 38.5 percent.
It isn’t just Young. It’s Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter and De’Andre Hunter. The Knicks don’t have a player that can match that.
What you see in four games is what you get the rest of the series. There are no more secrets, adjustments or secret weapons. Teams establish their mark and identity in the first four games of the playoffs. Right now, this can’t be a good thing for the Knicks.
The Knicks needed to win this game and even the series on Sunday for them to have a chance to win the series. Instead, they have to beat the Hawks three more times to win it. That’s going to be tough when one compares the talent from the Knicks and Hawks.
Just looking at the Hawks, I am amazed Lloyd Pierce got nothing out of that team with that talent. The Hawks fired him as their head coach in March and they took off when McMillan replaced him. Under the current Hawks coach, the Hawks played better defense, and their offense seems much more spread out.
The Knicks counted on Thibodeau to coach his team to a playoff series win against the Hawks. It likely won’t happen. There’s nothing he can do if he does not have the talent level that his counterpart has.
This is not to say Thibodeau is blameless. He could have played Immanuel Quickley and Frank Ntilikina more just to see if both can provide a spark. He shouldn’t have to force-feed the offense to Julius Randle when he is struggling as he has against the Hawks. His defense can be a little better. For one thing, there’s no way a Hawk should be open when he is on the 3-point line. It’s not hubris, it’s stupidity that the Knicks don’t guard a Hawk when he is shooting his shot.
Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. If there is something we learn in this playoff series, it’s that stars matter more than a head coach in the postseason.
Let’s look at McMillan. He did not have a player like Young when he coached the Indiana Pacers, and as a result, he had first-round losses and he got fired. Now, he has Young, and he all of sudden got smarter. Players make coaches more often than not. There are so many good NBA coaches, but they need players to make them look good, too.
Thibodeau is a fine coach. He showed that this year getting a lot out of a flawed roster by winning 41 games and having them making the playoffs. But that can only go so far. Overachieving teams don’t go far in the playoffs for a reason. Teams need a star that knows what to do come playoff time. Looking at the Knicks roster, what guy stands out? From what we saw, no one.
It certainly isn’t going to be Randle, who continues to struggle by scoring 23 points on 7-for-19 shooting in Sunday’s Game 4. I don’t know what RJ Barrett, ObI Toppin and Quickley are, but my eyes tell me they are likely not going to be. It isn’t Kevin Knox and Ntilikina.
It’s no wonder why Thibodeau talked about wanting a star on the first day of training camp. He knows he doesn’t have one.
He can coach the dickens out of the roster in Game 5 at the Garden, which takes place on Wednesday night.
But he is going to be hard-pressed to coax a lot out of his roster to win the series.
Simply put, his counterpart has the better talent on his roster than him.