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NBA Playoffs previews: New York Knicks vs Atlanta Hawks

The NBA’s best defensive outfit, the New York Knicks, will be looking to put their home-court advantage to good use in the first round of the playoffs against the Atlanta Hawks. Amazingly, the fourth and fifth seed in the Eastern Conference tied with the same record and points differential, only head-to-head records able to separate the two major improvers from 12 months ago. Given both teams missed the playoffs last season, the fact they have finished among the top teams in the East with a 41-31 record is astronomical.

New York, who take home-court advantage, built their season on the back of their defence. They are the league’s sixth-lowest scoring team but hold the best defensive record by almost two points per game. Conceding just 104.7 points per game, they have locked things down with great efficiency. A lot of that comes down to the way they have clogged up the paint, averaging more than five blocks each contest. Nerlens Noel is the league’s second-best blocker with 2.2 per game, but he has received ample support from Mitchell Robinson and Taj Gibson, who both have more than one per game.

Sitting fifth for the fewest turnovers and in the top ten for rebounds leaves New York in a position where they hold the ball for a lot longer than other teams too, enabling them to win a lot of low-scoring games, despite some (at times) poor shooting. Despite that, their attack improved towards the pointy end of the season, with the Knicks winning 16 of their last 20 games. Julius Randle is their key on offence with 24 points per game, but his output has increased over the last ten, while he has also put up 25.5 points per game at home, turning them into a tough team to beat at Madison Square Garden.

Atlanta’s form hasn’t been as consistent for as long as their opposition, but they too have had a wonderful finish to the season, winning seven of their last eight. In the era of high scores and three-point shooting, the Hawks could be seen as the more likely team to advance, but it won’t come to much unless they can get past the stringent defence on the other side of the court. Even so, Atlanta’s record of 113.7 points per game only leaves the middle of the pack. To make matters worse, the Hawks also lost all three regular-season games against the Knicks, and, while they came closer the third time around, the first two were double digits.

With the league’s 17th-best shooting percentage, the Hawks will need to find a way to increase that against the defensive might of New York, however, like their opposition, they have been disciplined with the ball, sitting in the top ten for the fewest turnovers. Against a good defence, ball movement is critical too, but Atlanta is 19th for assists, indicating they may not have the game plan to overcome the Knicks. If they are to get the job done, they’ll be relying on Clint Capela’s nearly 14 rebounds per game to give them an edge in time spent with the ball, as well as Trae Young’s 25.3 points per game.

Prediction: They say defence wins championships. The Knicks may not go that far, but they should have the edge with home-court advantage here to see off the Hawks.

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