This Sunday, we get to see the long-awaited return of both the Hawks and the Knicks in postseason play, who haven’t played in the postseason since the 2016-17 and 2012-13 seasons respectively. In a normal postseason, the matchup between the 4th seed and the 5th seed should be one of the more intense of the first round. So far, it’s looking like the Hawks-Knicks matchup will be a must-watch series. Not only did the Knicks and Hawks finish with the same record at the end of the season (41-31), but they also finished 9th and 11th in net rating respectively. However, this season has brought many challenges along with it given an increase in injuries and navigating COVID protocol issues. With that in mind, it would be more apt to look at the individual matchups in this series to determine who is likely going to be the winner.
Full Strength Team Match-up
To look at the full-strength matchup, we first need to identify who is going to be a part of the starting lineup, and 8-man rotation, for the playoffs.
Mitchell Robinson is doubtful to return. So, the Knicks starting rotation is looking to be Julius Randle and Nerlens Noel in the frontcourt, Reggie Bullock at the wing, and Elfrid Payton and RJ Barrett running the backcourt. Off the bench, we can expect Derrick Rose, Alec Burks, and Taj Gibson to take the lion’s share of the bench minutes.
While Cam Reddish is expected to miss the entire first-round series, the Atlanta starting lineup will feature the backcourt of Trae Young and Bogdan Bogdanovic with a frontcourt of Clint Capela and John Collins leaving De’Andre Hunter at the wing. The bench rotation will be much trickier for a deep Hawks roster. However, we should see a significant amount of minutes from Danilo Gallinari, Kevin Huerter, and Lou Williams.
Net rating is a great way to look at how teams, in general, will compare. But, when looking at a single playoff series, it should be better to look at the players themselves using an impact metric.
The above table is sorted by DPM, a plus-minus metric made by Kostya Medvedovsky. There is also RAPTOR (by FiveThirtyEight) as they are another reliable source for impact metrics. Assuming each starter gets 38 minutes per game and the other 3 in the 8-man rotation fill up the rest of the minutes (16.7 min each), the approximate team plus-minus from DPM data is +0.81 for the Hawks and -.17 for the Knicks. Doing the same with RAPTOR ratings we get +2.77 for the Hawks and +.62.
When it comes to the impact metrics there is a clear conclusion that Atlanta is the more talented team. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are going to win the series. Individual matchups are too integral to the sport to be overlooked.
The New York Knicks have been most notable for their “lockdown” defense. This defense has been led by (among others) Nerlens Noel who is currently averaging 6.9 stocks/100 possessions (3.3 stocks/game). With Mitchell Robinson out, the other lead contributors to this defense are Taj Gibson (4.7 stocks/100), and Frank Ntilikina (3.4 stocks/100). That said, Ntilikina is unlikely to see many minutes in postseason play due to his lackluster offense. Even though these players have been extremely impactful, the reason for the Knicks borderline dominant defense this year has largely been due to talent. They just don’t have any “bad” defenders on the roster. Regardless, let’s look at the sort of impact Nerlens Noel and their starting lineup have had on shooting efficiency and frequency.
These charts show Regularized Adjusted Deterrence, a measure of how well players prevent shots. According to the graphs, Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson have done a good job of preventing shots in the paint, while Julius Randle has been allowing more restricted area attempts. All three of them have been preventing mid-range shots really well, while allowing shots behind the 3pt line.
Now we can compare these charts to the Atlanta Hawks team shot chart.
The Hawks as a whole have been struggling in the restricted area and the Knicks’ deterrence in that area won’t help. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Both Nerlens Noel and Julius Randle have been weaker at allowing short mid-range shots in the paint, and the Hawks (more specifically Trae Young) can exploit that. The Hawks have also been one of the best 3pt shooting teams since Nate McMillan took over as head coach, and Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari have gone nuclear. In this time period, the Hawks were the 3rd best 3pt shooting team at 38.7%. Unfortunately for the Knicks, they do not have any elite perimeter defenders.
People will claim that the New York Knicks had one of the best 3pt defenses in the league, due to their opponent’s 3pt shooting percentage. But, as Seth Partnow has pointed out, this is simply not true. Their perimeter shot defense was so “good” because of a large spike in variance early on in the season. After their large spike, they regressed back to allowing ~36% of threes. On top of this, the RAD charts for their perimeter defenders (RJ Barrett, Elfrid Payton, Reggie Bullock) indicate that they deter fewer 3pt shots at the 3pt line than most players. Especially above the break threes. Unfortunately for the Knicks, the Hawks have been nothing short of dominant from above the break since McMillan took over, shooting 38.6%. If they allow open above the break threes, they will not last long against the Hawks.
The Hawks have not been known for their defense, but they were in the middle of the pack with the league’s 18th best defensive rating. This was largely due to the play of Clint Capela and John Collins throughout the season, with De’Andre Hunter able to contribute in his 23 games. The deterrence charts for this defensive trio tells a much different story from the Knicks deterrence.
These three have been doing a much better job at preventing 3pt shot attempts, and forcing much more shots at the top of the key (which are lower quality shots). None of them have done a great job at preventing restricted area attempts, but they have not been bad by any means. Fortunately, the Hawks’ premier perimeter defenders (Bogdan Bogdanovic and De’Andre Hunter) have done a terrific job preventing 3pt attempts. Despite Trae Young’s defensive woes at the perimeter, the Hawks are still only 15th in 3pt attempts allowed per 100 possessions. Now given the Hawks’ deterrence charts let’s look at the Knicks shot chart.
As the shot chart indicates the Knicks have been struggling everywhere inside of the arc. This shows how the Knicks have the 2nd lowest 2pt FG% in the league at 49.0% (for reference the Hawks are 19th and shoot 52.6%). They did most of their damage on offense this year from the 3pt line where they shot 39.2%. They were most lethal shooting corner and wing threes, which the Hawks have been very good at preventing.
If the Hawks want to win this matchup defensively, they need to work to force shots inside the arc. Even at the risk of giving up a few extra restricted area attempts, this is imperative. To win on the offensive side of the court, they need to let Trae do his thing. Trae and Bogdan are great at driving into the short mid-range floater and dishing out to the open man, they just need to keep doing what they have been doing in the latter half of the season. They are the more talented team, so they should be able to win this series if they make sure to keep their heads on straight.
My guess is Hawks in 6. If the Knicks force game 7 I’m still riding with the Hawks, but the matchup is much harder in MSG.