The New York Knicks are better than a top 10 team in the Eastern Conference for the first time in six years and secured the fourth seed by topping the Boston Celtics on Sunday. The Knicks have secured home-court advantage for their matchup against the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks, whom they swept 3-0 during the regular season.
The Knicks have put together a great campaign. They boast a top-5 defense, rank second in team 3-point field goal percentage, and are among the league leaders in wins at home. The odds seem to favor New York moving onto the second round, and the public will likely swarm to bet on the Mecca’s team. However, I think the underdogs are poised to pull off an upset and advance to the second round for the first time in five years.
Twitter had varying opinions on this tweet of mine from earlier this month, and it’s time I provided more depth about why I feel like an upset is on the horizon.
I’m taking the Hawks over the Knicks in a playoff series if De’Andre Hunter is healthy.— Ameer Tyree (@its_ameericle) May 8, 2021
Trae Young’s playmaking is peaking at the right time, Bogdan Bogdanovic’s scoring is better than it’s ever been, and Clint Capela is the league’s leading rebounder. Then there’s De’Andre Hunter, who was blossoming as one of the NBA’s premier up-and-coming 3-and-D players before missing a significant chunk of time with a knee injury. New York beat Atlanta with all four of those players healthy 113-108 earlier this year, but that was before Nate McMillan took over and helped the Hawks win nearly 70% with him at the helm. The Knicks have the defense to figure them out on some nights, but getting the job done four times will be difficult.
Atlanta has been ravaged by injuries this season but is still one of the NBA’s best offensive teams. While three of the Hawks’ top-6 scorers have missed at least 20 games, their four most popular 5-man lineups (with at least 100 minutes on the court) have an average offensive rating of 120.9. To put things in perspective, the Brooklyn Nets have a league-leading offensive rating of 117.2. Atlanta’s overall offensive rating for the year (114.2) ranks ninth in the NBA this season and 10th all-time. The 2020-21 season has been marked by ridiculous offensive efficiency, and New York might not have the chops to keep up.
New York’s fourth-ranked defensive rating (107.8) shouldn’t be taken lightly. Its effort on the defensive end has helped it become one of the NBA’s most sure-fire first-half cover bets this season. Julius Randle’s breakout year and the return of Derrick Rose have helped the Knicks to perform at a high level consistently. However, New York ranks 22nd in offensive rating (110.4) and has used fewer lineup configurations than any team this year. The Knicks know how to win one way, and their big three — Randle, Rose, and RJ Barrett — will have to bring their best to the table to match Atlanta’s offensive versatility. Can New York make a statement and show that defense matters in a league that’s chock-full of offensive juggernauts? I’m leaning toward no.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think either side will dominate the other in this series. But, if you are going to pick an underdog in the first round, the Hawks are one of the best options on the table. The series could very well go six or seven games if both parties are healthy. The Hawks are -112 on the series line and +110 on the moneyline for Game 1 as 2.5-point underdogs.