Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau is almost out of buttons to push. And he runs out of time to find new ones.
Sunday in Game 4 of their first-round NBA playoff series, his Knicks Atlanta Hawks’ elite backcourt tandem kept Trae Young and Bogdan Bogdanovic relatively contained. The two players combined to shoot 40.6 percent off the field. Young went to the free throw line only five times, four below his season average. Thibodeau got the first productive game in the series out of RJ Barrett, who had 21 points on 8-of-15 shooting, 6 rebounds and 4 assists. And Thibodeau’s mid-series adjustment by inserting guard Derrick Rose and center Taj Gibson in the starting lineup continued to play dividends: Rose again carried the team offensively in stretches, and Gibson delivered hard defense and rebound.
But the Knicks were still run off the field in the second half and lost, 113-96. They are on the verge of elimination heading into Game 5 of the best-of-seven series on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.
Thibodeau can not adjust the Knicks out of this: His best player, Julius Randle, has been negative on the pitch.
On Sunday, Randle had his best game in the series – and it was not very good: He had 23 points on 7-of-19 shooting along with 10 rebounds and seven assists. Six of those points came in the fourth quarter when the game was well in hand. In the first half, Randle shot 4 out of 12 and continued a series-long decline. He looked more active during the game, but he also seemed to be late for some close-outs against the Hawks’ shooting game. The Hawks won on the strength of their perimeter shooting and converted 15 out of 39 attempts from 3-point range (38.5 percent).
He tried to establish his ailing springboard early. He missed several setbacks, making life harder for him at the edge, where he missed possible layups. Part of Randle’s inefficiency is that the Hawks have constructed their entire defense to stop him. And Randle seemed to make an adjustment on Sunday by getting rid of the ball much faster when the double team arrived.
“I like a lot of the pieces that Julius made today,” Thibodeau said after the game. “I have felt it all along. It’s Julius makeup. When he goes through things, he always gets better and better, and that’s who he is. As long as he makes quick decisions, good things will happen. ”
But the Knicks needed Randle to hit his shots, especially the open ones. And it did not happen.
“Regardless of every single performance, you will win games,” Randle said. “That’s the goal.” He added: “No matter what, I need to be much better.”
Of course, not everyone at Randle called this matchup “a learning experience.” Several of his teammates missed jumpers from his pass, unlike Youngs Hawks teammates. But Randle’s lack of production in the series is magnified by Young, who the Knicks are also trying to stop at all costs. Young has nevertheless managed to create scoring opportunities for himself and others.
The Knicks play without Mitchell Robinson, an athletic shooter who would make life harder for Young at the edge. This series would be different if Robinson was healthy and able to give Thibodeau more opportunities defensively. (Atlanta’s brass would counter the Hawks’ lack of second-year forward Cam Reddish. Most teams are not entirely healthy this season.)
You can not help but wonder if Randle and by extension are just tired. Very few NBA players faced a greater burden during the regular season than Randle, who had to be the team’s top scorer, rebounder and passer while playing most minutes. And this is where a common critique of Thibodeau comes into play. He has long been powdered for relying on his top players too much. And against the Hawks, the Knicks starters have gone back since the normal season.
Randle led the NBA for a total of minutes this season. Barrett was second. They were still on the floor late in the fourth quarter on Sunday, despite the game being out of reach. (In contrast, Young, who is the focal point of the Hawks’ offense, was 33rd in total minutes.)
Randle was in the game long enough that with about three minutes left he destroyed Danilo Gallinari hard in retaliation for Gallinari’s elbow Reggie Bullock. On this face, this was a leader standing up for a teammate. But Randle probably should not have been on the floor so late in the game when the Hawks won, 111-87. And if the situation somehow escalated, Randle would have been vulnerable to further penalties from the league.
This Knicks team may just not have the legs, and against Atlanta is a team that moves the ball well and is stacked with shooters and rebounders, it is important to be able to move fast for long distances. The Knicks, one of the best 3-point teams in the league in the regular season, were 9 in 29 on Sunday, just 31 percent.
Rose, 32, who averages 26.8 minutes a game in the regular season, played nearly 40 minutes in each of the first three games in this series. After scoring 16 points in the first half, he had only 2 after the break, apparently running out of gas. Bullock, a typically reliable starter for the Knicks, went 0 out of 4 off the field.
The Knicks were down 4 points after two quarters. But Atlanta’s third quarter run, triggered by hot perimeter shooting and a sluggish Knicks defense, pushed the lead to 17.
It’s easy to criticize some of the Knicks’ jitters up to their lack of experience after the season. Randle, Barrett and several other players play 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 with 3-1 deficits have managed to return to winning the series 13 times in NBA 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 on their way home, where a dedicated fanbase awaits them.
But it will not be anything tactical that gets the team back in the series. Randle and the other starters who carried the Knicks to this point need to dig deep and find another level. Otherwise, a playoff race that has electrified New York City will end much earlier than anyone thought.
“We have to fix it,” Thibodeau said. “We need to fix it quickly.”