Knicks face a tough test against red-hot rival Hawks.
The Hawks are beginning to play as the club that beat the Knicks in five games in the first round of the NBA playoffs last spring and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals.
They brought in all of their players for a replay, but they got off to a slow start. Now the Hawks (10-9) are humming just in time for Saturday’s meeting with the Knicks, the teams’ first meeting since June 2, when the Hawks ended the Knicks season in a Game 5 win in the Garden.
To add insult to injury, Atlanta center Clint Capela said before Game 5 that he couldn’t wait to finish the Knicks season while poking fun at his physical game.
“Now we are going to come to your house to win this game again and send you on vacation,” Capela said.
Capela never had to face Knicks starting center Mitchell Robinson, who came out with a broken foot, in last year’s playoffs, Robinson is now back, having returned from concussion protocol Friday against the Suns.
So the Hawks will look different Saturday in Atlanta, as Nerlens center Noel proved to be outdone against Atlanta and Capela last postseason.
Atlanta is on a seven-game win streak, fueled by a 5-0 home run. The Hawks beat Memphis on Friday before returning home to host the Knicks, their newest 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. “Look at what they did last year and the players they have. We will have to be prepared. ”
The NBA recognized bad blood. Even though it was only five games in favor of the Hawks, the first-round series was a must-watch television last spring when Trae Young & Co. toppled the slightly favored Knicks.
It became the Hawks’ coming-out party as they danced to the conference final and drew 2-2 with eventual champion Bucks, two Finals wins, before Milwaukee won the series in six.
The creators of the NBA calendar put the Hawks in the garden for Christmas Day, thinking that Young’s profane chants will add to the holiday cheer.
First, the teams fight on Saturday. It’s an unfortunate moment for the Knicks, who have a back-to-back with two clubs that had a combined 20-game winning streak at the start of Friday.
Plus, it’s never certain how a team will react to Thanksgiving at home, feasting on turkey.
“That’s the league,” Thibodeau said. “Every night you can find something. That is what you cannot do. You have to be locked in 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 trip to the West Coast in seven days. All is well now with his 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 range 3. points in their last 10 games.
Young can claim as the number one point guard in the East. The new foul rules have affected him as he reaches the free throw line less often.
The NBA does not reward offensive players with a non-contact motion foul, although many of Young’s fouls occur when he stops short and is collided with. That is still a violation. Young entered Friday with an average of 25.3 points and 9.2 assists.
The Knicks had beaten the Hawks all three times in the regular season before their humiliating dose of peach pie in the playoffs.
Atlanta was never completely healthy for its regular-season fights, but it was for the playoffs. Specifically, De’Andre Hunter rallied for the first-round meeting and became a defensive error against Julius Randle, who suffered an anemic series after his All-Star campaign.
Randle, who said Friday that there is no more importance in playing the Hawks on Saturday, has not fully recovered from that series. The Knicks (10-9), but they haven’t been in sync since a 5-1 start.
It seems that as Evan Fournier is going, so are the Knicks, who have struggled to acclimate their five starters to each other.
“We’ve stayed upbeat,” Randle said. “We have stayed positive. We have had ups and downs. We have had lows. But once it starts to click, we’ll be a really good team. And we are starting to take a step in the right direction. ”
Both the Knicks and Hawks will be at the back of a back-to-back set. Kemba Walker said Friday night that he wasn’t sure if he will play in Atlanta, but that he might have to play Derrick Rose possibly because of a sprained ankle. Rose missed his second straight game Friday against the Suns.