Knicks face tough test vs. red-hot rival Hawks
The Hawks are starting to play like the club that routed the Knicks in five games in the first round of last spring’s NBA playoffs and advanced all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.
They brought all their players back for a rerun but got off to a slow start. Now the Hawks (10-9) are humming along just in time for Saturday’s showdown with the Knicks — the teams’ first meeting since June 2, when the Hawks ended the Knicks’ season in a Game 5 victory at the Garden.
Adding insult to injury was Atlanta center Clint Capela saying before Game 5 that he couldn’t wait to end the Knicks’ season while mocking their physical play.
“Now we’re coming to your home to win this game again and send you on vacation,” Capela said.
Capela never had to face Knicks starting center Mitchell Robinson, who was out with a broken foot, in last year’s playoffs, Robinson now is back, having returned from concussion protocol Friday against the Suns.
So the Hawks will get a different look Saturday in Atlanta as center Nerlens Noel proved to be overmatched against Atlanta and Capela last postseason.
Atlanta is on a seven-game winning streak — buoyed by a 5-0 homestand. The Hawks beat Memphis on Friday before coming home to get the Knicks, their new rivals.
“They’re a good team,’’ Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said before the Knicks’ 118-97 loss to the Suns on Friday night at the Garden. “You look at what they did last year and the players they have. We’re going to have to be ready.’’
The NBA recognized the bad blood. Though it went just five games in the Hawks’ favor, the first-round series was must-watch television last spring when Trae Young & Co. ousted the slightly favored Knicks.
It became the Hawks’ coming-out party as they danced all the way to the conference finals and were tied at 2-2 with the eventual-champion Bucks — two wins from The Finals — before Milwaukee won the series in six.
The NBA schedule-makers put the Hawks in the Garden for Christmas Day, figuring the profane Young chants will make for good holiday cheer.
First, the teams battle Saturday. It’s unfortunate timing for the Knicks, who have a back-to-back with two clubs who had a combined 20-game winning streak entering Friday.
Plus, it’s never a certainty how a team will react to a Thanksgiving off at home, feasting on turkey.
“That’s the league,’’ Thibodeau said. “Every night you can find something. That’s what you can’t do. You have to be locked into each and every game every day and not get lost anywhere and focus on what’s in front of you.’’
The Hawks struggled early, finding their rotation and burdened with a five-game West Coast trip in seven days. All is fine now with their core — Young, Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, John Collins, Capela and Kevin Huerter, the Albany area product who killed the Knicks in the playoffs and is shooting 48 percent from 3-point range in his past 10 games.
Young can make the claim as the No. 1 point guard in the East. The new foul rules have affected him as he’s getting to the free-throw line less frequently.
The NBA is not rewarding offensive players with a foul off a non-contact move, though many of Young’s fouls come when he stops short and gets run into. That still is a violation. Young entered Friday averaging 25.3 points and 9.2 assists.
The Knicks had beaten the Hawks all three times in the regular season before their humbling dose of peach pie in the playoffs.
Atlanta was never fully healthy for their regular-season tussles but was for the playoffs. Specifically, De’Andre Hunter got healthy for the first-round meeting and became a defensive bug against Julius Randle, who suffered through a anemic series after his All-Star campaign.
Randle, who said Friday there’s no extra significance to playing the Hawks on Saturday, hasn’t fully recovered from that series. The Knicks (10-9) but haven’t been in sync since a 5-1 start.
It seems as Evan Fournier goes, so go the Knicks, who have struggled getting their starting five acclimated with each other.
“We’ve stayed encouraged,’’ Randle said. “We’ve stayed positive. We have had highs. We’ve had lows. But once it starts clicking, we’re going to be a really, really good team. And we’re starting to take a step in the right direction.’’
Both the Knicks and Hawks will be on the back end of a back-to-back set. Kemba Walker said Friday night he was unsure if he will play in Atlanta, but might have to with Derrick Rose possibly out with a sprained ankle. Rose missed his second straight game on Friday against the Suns.