Knicks-Hawks looks much different now than 2021 NBA playoffs

A mere 303 days earlier, this had been the hottest ticket in town and these were the two teams on everyone’s tongues. It was a Sunday, just like the old days, and it felt like the old days at Madison Square Garden, whether your definition of “old days” is the ’90s or the ’70s (or both).

“You can feel the electricity,” Tom Thibodeau said that afternoon. “This is what it’s supposed to feel like in here.”

We are blessed with hindsight, and so we know with certitude that life peaked for the Knicks in the minutes before they tipped off with the Hawks that evening, May 23, 2021. They had ended the season in a rush and earned a stunning No. 4 seed in the East. The Hawks were right there with them; they’d both gone 41-31 but the Knicks had swept the Hawks in the regular season. They had home court.

It was the first time any team in New York would play in front of a crowd of 15,000 or more since the start of the pandemic, but even though they had to keep 4,000 seats empty there was no containing the joy and the enthusiasm within those walls . The Knicks had captured the city’s imagination. Thibodeau was a miracle worker. Knicks fans who had long pined for the team to retire No. 30 in honor of Bernard King would’ve been fine signing up right then to have Julius Randle join him.

Take a snapshot. Stare at it. Savor it. Those were good times.

Danilo Gallinari #8 of the Atlanta Hawks plays defense on Julius Randle #30 of the New York Knicks during Round 1, Game 1 of the 2021 NBA Playoffs on May 23, 2021 at Madison Square Garden.
The Hawks’ Danilo Gallinari defends Julius Randle during Game 1 of the Knicks-Hawks 2021 playoff series.
NBAE via Getty Images

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And it is remarkable through that lens to see what has happened in only 303 days. You can start with the Hawks, if you like, because there was no team that entered this season with more juice than Atlanta. The Hawks, of course, polished off the Knicks in a gentleman’s sweep of five games, stunned the Sixers in the next round and gave the eventual-champion Bucks all they could handle in the conference finals.

And they have regressed, plenty. They came to the Garden 35-36. They will be a play-in team; the only question is if they’ll be able to slip past Charlotte into ninth.

But the Hawks aren’t the real issue here, 303 days later.

That would be the Knicks. Everything good about last year’s team seemed to vanish either during or after their drubbing by the Hawks. They used to be a gritty, defense-first team that was hard to beat at the Garden (even when the Garden was near empty); Now they are home-court patsies who only periodically guard at an acceptable level.

Kevin Huerter #3 of the Atlanta Hawks plays defense on Evan Fournier #13 of the New York Knicks during the game on March 22, 2022 at Madison Square Garden.
Kevin Huerter defends Evan Fournier during the game on March 22, 2022 at Madison Square Garden.
NBAE via Getty Images

Thibodeau has gone from toast of the town to toast, period, with an awful lot of Knicks fans turning on him and something of an unknown specter floating over his head because he has yet to receive what you would call a firm vote of confidence from his bosses. And while it has been written in these pages often that firing Thibodeau would be a mistake, it is absolutely fair to say he has done a lot worse job with this team than he did last year’s.

And then there is Randle. Suffice to say, most Knicks fans have returned to their default position of believing there is only one true. 30. But it is also difficult to remember another New York athlete who has gone from over-the-top, beyond-belief popularity to daily target of slander and anger. A year ago they were chanting “MVP!” whenever Randle stepped to the foul line. Now there’s an uncomfortable murmur whenever he touches the ball in an important segment of the game.

Randle, of course, was humbled by the Hawks in last year’s playoffs, and in many ways he’s seemed haunted by that for most of this year. He didn’t play Tuesday night thanks to a sore quad, which is probably for the best. The Garden crowds stopped giving him the benefit of the doubt weeks ago, and instead have given him the business. It could’ve gotten extra ugly Tuesday.

That would’ve been hard to believe 303 days earlier.

Damn near impossible, actually.

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