Knicks Coach Tom Thibodeau is nearly out of buttons to push. And he’s working out of time to search out new ones.
On Sunday, in Game four of their first-round N.B.A. playoff collection, his Knicks saved the Atlanta Hawks’ elite backcourt tandem of Trae Young and Bogdan Bogdanovic comparatively contained. The two gamers mixed to shoot 40.6 p.c from the discipline. Young went to the free-throw line solely 5 instances, 4 beneath his season common. Thibodeau obtained the first productive sport of the collection out of RJ Barrett, who had 21 factors on Eight-of-15 capturing, 6 rebounds and four assists. And Thibodeau’s midseries adjustment, inserting guard Derrick Rose and heart Taj Gibson into the beginning lineup, continued to play dividends: Rose once more carried the staff offensively for stretches, and Gibson offered powerful protection and rebounding.
But the Knicks have been nonetheless run off the courtroom in the second half, dropping, 113-96. They are on the brink of elimination heading into Game 5 of the best-of-seven collection on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.
Thibodeau can’t regulate the Knicks out of this: His greatest participant, Julius Randle, has been a damaging on the courtroom.
On Sunday, Randle had his greatest sport of the collection — and it wasn’t superb: He had 23 factors on 7-of-19 capturing, together with 10 rebounds and 7 assists. Six of these factors got here in the fourth quarter when the sport was nicely in hand. In the first half, Randle shot four of 12, persevering with a series-long stoop. He seemed extra energetic in spurts all through the sport, however he additionally gave the impression to be late on some close-outs in opposition to the Hawks’ shooters. The Hawks received on the energy of their perimeter capturing, changing 15 of 39 makes an attempt from Three-point vary (38.5 p.c).
He tried to determine his ailing soar shot early. He missed a number of step-backs, which made life tougher for him at the rim, the place he missed makable layups. Some of Randle’s ineffectiveness is as a result of the Hawks have engineered their total protection to cease him. And Randle appeared to make an adjustment Sunday by eliminating the ball a lot faster when double groups arrived.
“I like a lot of the plays that Julius made today,” Thibodeau stated after the sport. “I’ve felt this all along. It is Julius’s makeup. As he goes through things, he always gets better and better, and that’s who he is. As long as he’s making quick decisions, good things are going to happen.”
But the Knicks wanted Randle to hit his photographs, particularly the open ones. And that didn’t occur.
“Regardless of every individual performance, you want to win games,” Randle stated. “That’s the goal.” He added, “Regardless, I have to be a lot better.”
Of course, this isn’t all on Randle, who referred to as this matchup “a learning experience.” Several of his teammates missed jumpers off his passes, not like Young’s Hawks teammates. But Randle’s lack of manufacturing in the collection has been magnified by Young, whom the Knicks are additionally attempting to cease in any respect prices. Young has nonetheless managed to create scoring alternatives for himself and others.
The Knicks are taking part in with out Mitchell Robinson, an athletic shot blocker who would make life tougher for Young at the rim. This collection could be completely different if Robinson have been wholesome and in a position to give Thibodeau extra choices defensively. (Atlanta’s brass would counter that the Hawks are lacking the second-year ahead Cam Reddish. Most groups are usually not totally wholesome this time of yr.)
You can’t assist however surprise if Randle and, by extension, the Knicks are simply drained. Very few N.B.A. gamers confronted extra of a burden throughout the common season than Randle, who needed to be the staff’s greatest scorer, rebounder and passer, whereas taking part in most of the minutes. And that is the place a typical criticism of Thibodeau comes into play. He has lengthy been pilloried for counting on his prime gamers too extensively. And in opposition to the Hawks, the Knicks’ starters have regressed since the common season.
Randle led the N.B.A. in whole minutes this season. Barrett was second. They have been nonetheless on the ground late in the fourth quarter Sunday, regardless of the sport’s being out of attain. (As a distinction, Young, who’s the point of interest of the Hawks’ offense, was 33rd in whole minutes.)
Randle was in the sport lengthy sufficient that with round three minutes left, he fouled Danilo Gallinari exhausting in retaliation for Gallinari’s elbowing Reggie Bullock. On its face, this was a frontrunner standing up for a teammate. But Randle most likely mustn’t have been on the ground that late in the sport, when the Hawks have been profitable, 111-87. And if the scenario by some means escalated, Randle would have been weak to additional punishment from the league.
This Knicks staff simply won’t have its legs, and in opposition to Atlanta, a staff that strikes the ball nicely and is stacked with shooters and rebounders, having the ability to transfer shortly for lengthy stretches is crucial. The Knicks, considered one of the greatest Three-point-shooting groups in the league in the common season, have been 9 for 29 Sunday, solely 31 p.c.
Rose, 32, who averaged 26.8 minutes a game in the regular season, played nearly 40 minutes in each of the first three games of this series. After scoring 16 points in the first half, he had only 2 after the break, seemingly running out of gas. Bullock, a typically reliable starter for the Knicks, went 0 of 4 from the field.
The Knicks were down by 4 points after two quarters. But Atlanta’s third-quarter run, triggered by hot perimeter shooting and a lethargic Knicks defense, pushed its lead to 17.
It’s easy to chalk up some of the Knicks’ jitters to their lack of postseason experience. Randle, Barrett and several other players are playing in their first playoff series. But the same goes for the Hawks: Clint Capela is their only starter who did not make his playoff debut this month.
The series is not over yet. Teams facing 3-1 deficits have managed to come back to win the series 13 times in N.B.A. history. Two of them were last year, when the Denver Nuggets defeated both the Los Angeles Clippers and the Utah Jazz in the bubble. And the Knicks are headed home, where a dedicated fan base awaits them.
But it won’t be something tactical that gets the team back into the series. Randle and the other starters who carried the Knicks to this point have to dig deep and find another level. Otherwise, a playoff run that has electrified New York City is going to end much earlier than anyone thought.
“We’ve got to fix it,” Thibodeau said. “We’ve got to fix it fast.”