RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, and Derrick Rose / Knicks

After a stellar regular season, the New York Knicks secured the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference and will play the No. 5 seed Atlanta Hawks in the opening round of the NBA Playoffs.

This is not a joke. Hell, it’s not even a dream.

To quote Amar’e Stoudemire, “The Knicks are back.”

Thanks to Tom Thibodeau and Julius Randle, the Knicks not only made the playoffs but have a great chance to win a series, which is unfathomable considering the team hasn’t made the playoffs in eight years. The Knicks won all three matchups against the Hawks during the regular season. But this is the playoffs so throw the records out the door.

The Hawks are a different team since Nate McMillian took over for Lloyd Pierce. On paper, the Hawks have the more talented roster with Trae Young, John Collins, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Deandre Hunter, and Clint Capela. However, the Knicks are the embodiment of toughness and grit, ranking third in team defensive efficiency.

For the Knicks to win the series, they must accomplish three things.

Julius Randle Must Assert His Dominance

To say Julius Randle dominated the Hawks during the regular season would be the understatement of the century. There’s dominance, and then there’s Randle against the Hawks. In three games versus the Hawks, Randle averaged 37.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 6.7 assists on 58.1/50.0/81.8 shooting splits.

The Hawks are an average defense so Randle should be able to exploit matchups regularly. If Deandre Hunter isn’t 100%, then Solomon Hill is probably the best option to defend Randle. I’ll choose Randle in that matchup eleven times out of ten. Even if Randle puts up his season averages of 24.1 ppg, 10.2 rpg, and 6.0 apg, the Knicks will be in good shape to advance.

Alec Burks Must Be A Scoring Threat Off The Bench

The Knicks’ three best scoring options are Randle, RJ Barrett, and Derrick Rose. If all goes according to plan, those three will lead the team in scoring. Reggie Bullock will chip in some threes, but he’s more of a catch-and-shoot player, not so much a creator. There has to be that fourth guy to create offense and provide some scoring off the bench especially when Randle and RJ sit. The best player to fill that role is Alec Burks.

Burks has been one of the bargain signings of the past season. Burks signed a one-year contract worth $6 million, and he’s completely exceeded expectations. Burks provides the Knicks with a guard who can create his own shot, shoot over 40% from three, and provide solid defense. Pairing him with Rose and Immanuel Quickley gives the Knicks three viable threats to create offense off the bench.

In Burks last three games, he’s scored 30, 14, and 17 points in just under 30 minutes per game. If Burks can score over 10 each game of the series, that’s one more option the Hawks need to worry about, which will help open up the offense.

Stop Bogdan Bogdanovic

Trae Young is going to score at least 20 points per game. Young is good at drawing fouls and hitting bombs from beyond the arc. John Collins will also provide some matchup problems for the Knicks.

That being said, the Knicks must stop Bogdan Bogdanovic. McMillian deserves a ton of credit for the Hawks’ turnaround, but Bogdanovic sparked their success on the court. Since Bogdanovic returned from a fractured knee, the Hawks are 27-11 including seven wins in their last eight games. McMillian has allowed Bogdanovic to create off the dribble and get to his spots instead of serving as someone to space the floor for Young. When Young’s off the floor, the Hawks don’t miss a beat with Bogdanovic serving as the primary ball-handler.

The Knicks are expected to play good, team defense. They’ve done it all year so there’s no reason why it would disappear now. However, the Knicks must contain Bogdanovic or risk getting into shootouts, which isn’t their strength.

Bottomline

No matter what happens, this season will go down as a success. The Knicks shattered their projected win total of 22.5 games with 41 wins. They finally have a stable front office, an above-average head coach, a star in the making with Randle, and a definitive identity.

The Knicks were not supposed to be here. But, since they are here, they might as well win it, right?

Knicks in 7.

Who do you think will win, Hawks or Knicks? Leave your thoughts in the comments below or tweet us, @danny_giro.

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