Knicks vs. Hawks: How they turned it around in Game 2 and in series

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·4 min read
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Hawks forward Danilo Gallinari controls the ball against Knicks forward Julius Randle in Game 2
Hawks forward Danilo Gallinari controls the ball against Knicks forward Julius Randle in Game 2

The first half of Game 2 looked awfully familiar to the entirety of Game 1 for the Knicks -- plagued by offensive indecision and inefficiency, Trae Young getting anything he wanted, and lots of groans from the rafters. Back-to-back sluggish starts quickly turned into the real possibility of falling 0-2 in the home stretch of their series.

But when New York entered the locker room down 13 at the half, something changed. Namely, a few key adjustments from the Knicks coaching staff and players who were sorely needed.

The result?

In the second half, the Hawks failed to crack 20 points in a quarter and the Knicks outscored them 57-35 en route to their first win of the series.

It began with the personnel, as Tom Thibodeau opted to start Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose in place of Nerlens Noel and Elfrid Payton. Fans called for the switch at point guard for months now, and losing Game 1 then falling behind in Game 2 appeared to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for Thibs.

Payton hasn’t brought value to the court for some time, mucking up spacing and not scoring nor defending to a high enough level to justify his playing time. He’s scored in double digits once in the last 17 games. Defenses don’t bother collapsing on his drives, happily affording him awkward contested in-between looks. Young has about the same amount of trouble with him as he does Rose.

Noel is stuck in a bit of a bad match-up, with the Knicks needing additional offensive creation and spacing out of the middle to counteract the overloading Hawks defense. He’s also lacking the strength to body up Clint Capela down low, while Gibson provides more of both. This lineup opened the second half on a run and closed out the game with a W.

Not only did the lineup change, but so did the defensive scheme on Young. The Knicks went with a more aggressive pick-and-roll approach, with the big hedging harder and even trapping at times.

Young's comfort disappeared with this change, and it clearly disrupted Young and Atlanta’s rhythms. Twenty of Young’s 30 points came before the break, effectively cutting his production in half to close out the game. The Hawks will be more prepared for this look in Game 3, which then puts the onus back on Thibs to make the next chess move.

Halftime also flipped the switch on the Knicks’ offensive approach, with a more active and physical Julius Randle, RJ Barrett and all the way down. The first half (and first game) stagnation, seemingly stupefied hanging around in the wake of Atlanta’s defense, was gone.

Randle began looking to get to his spots quicker and in semi-transition so as to catch the defense off guard. He seemed to remember that he doesn’t usually care about an extra defender waiting on him in the paint, and can go through Danilo Gallinari if he wanted to. His stronger drives to the paint were accompanied by better recognition and targeting of weak side shooters once the defense collapsed.

These looks were available from the beginning, with the Hawks running a relatively simple scheme Randle and the Knicks have seen many times before. For some reason that assertiveness to break the perimeter arc and create from there was lost. Whatever was said at halftime helped the Knicks find it, which allowed Reggie Bullock to reintroduce himself to the series with big threes down the stretch.

Getting Bullock involved was part of a larger effort to get Young more involved defensively to tire him out. He’s too small to effectively contest Bullock and was caught ball-watching and dying over screens to contain him. Alec Burks also had a couple of possessions attacking Young, a theme you can expect to see more of from the Knicks.

If there’s one thing that makes these Knicks different, it’s their relentlessness in the face of obstacles. Three halves of uncharacteristic basketball were forgotten in a blink, and it feels like New York might be taking back control of the series with a few minor changes. They’ll need to make more as the series continues in Atlanta, but now they’re going in on a high note.