N.B.A. playoff basketball returned to Manhattan as a cultural event with a loud, spirited crowd and a new archenemy, the Hawks’ Trae Young.
For 47 minutes 59.1 seconds, the fans at Madison Square Garden ranged from raucous to delirious, as the Knicks — their Knicks — were locked in a dogfight on Sunday night against the Atlanta Hawks in the New York team’s first N.B.A. playoff game since 2013.
And with nine-10ths of a second remaining, Trae Young, the Hawks’ star guard, was able to get around Frank Ntilikina, a guard ostensibly known for his defense, and hit a game-winning floater.
Young then added insult to injury by using his finger to shush the crowd, a good portion of which had been sending profane chants his way for much of the game, a 107-105 Hawks win.
— Atlanta Hawks (@ATLHawks) May 24, 2021
“I’ve always looked at it as I’m doing something right if I’m offending them with my play that much,” Young told reporters after the game, adding: “Just got to let my play do the talking because at the end of the day, fans can only talk. They can’t guard me.”
Neither could the Knicks in Game 1 of this best-of-seven first-round series. An unfazed Young repeatedly took the air out of the building as he took over in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t just the game winner. It was the two free throws with 28 seconds left. Another floater with less than two minutes left, as well as a free throw. Young scored 13 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter, deftly casting aside the howling home fans and the haymakers the Knicks kept throwing the Hawks’ way in a back-and-forth thriller. All nine of Young’s free throws came in the final quarter, as did three of his 10 assists.
The Knicks tried valiantly to keep Young contained in pick-and-rolls. It didn’t work, as Young used his best weapon — the floater — to frustrate much taller centers.
“He’s a great player,” Tom Thibodeau, the Knicks’ coach, said. “We’ll take a look at the film. You’re not going to be able to stay with a steady diet of anything, so obviously we have to do a better job.”
Sunday’s game had all of the hallmarks of the classic Knicks playoff games that N.B.A. audiences were accustomed to in the 1990s. (Before tipoff, Thibodeau, who was an assistant coach for the Knicks then, recalled that he had never heard a building as loud as Madison Square Garden was when Larry Johnson hit a game-tying 3 against the Indiana Pacers in Game 3 of the 1999 Eastern Conference finals — one of the most famous shots in Knicks history.)
Game 1 was low scoring and defensively oriented, much like the Knicks before the millennium. Angry fans chanted profanities at an opposing team’s best player (and the referees). Those same ones screamed so loudly that the public-address announcer could not be heard after RJ Barrett’s fast-break dunk over Bogdan Bogdanovic in the third quarter sent the crowd of 15,047 into a frenzy.
An exuberant Spike Lee berated the referees and embraced Knicks players from the sideline. Other celebrities, like Tracy Morgan, Jon Stewart and Rachel Brosnahan, sat courtside to aid in efforts to rattle the Hawks. Christopher Jackson, the Broadway star, sang the national anthem. David Guetta, the French D.J., performed at halftime.
The playoff opener was a reminder that at its best, the Knicks basketball experience is as much a cultural event in New York as it is a basketball one. (To that end, Andrew Yang, one of the leading candidates for mayor of New York City, posted a video of himself on Twitter shaking hands with attendees outside the arena before the game. He has apparently gotten over his previous disavowal of the franchise, which had also been posted on Twitter.)
The contest had everything Knicks fans could want except for a win. But this was the kind of game that had some significant outliers, making it difficult to project the rest of the series. For one thing, while Young, an All-Star, came through for the Hawks, the Knicks’ All-Star did not. Julius Randle, facing a steady rush of double teams, shot 6 of 23 from the field for 15 points. He dominated the Hawks during the regular season, but he could not get his jumpers to fall on Sunday.
“Listen, I’m not making no excuses,” Randle said. “I’ve got to be better, and I will be better. I’ll just leave it at that.”
The Knicks were one of the most accurate 3-point-shooting teams in the league during the regular season. On Sunday, they were 10 for 30 from deep — 33 percent, far below their season average of 39 percent.
The Knicks stayed in the game mostly because of the play of the reserves, particularly Alec Burks, who led the team with 27 points off the bench. Derrick Rose had 17 points and Immanuel Quickley added 10, including two momentum-shifting 3s.
A slight bounce here or a friendly foul call that doesn’t go Young’s way, and this discussion is way different. It would be about the Knicks returning to playoff glory and the large number of city residents who suddenly had to — wink, wink — call out sick on Monday. It would be about how the Knicks beat the Hawks despite their best players not playing well, and how well that bodes in a series in which the Knicks have home-court advantage.
But the Hawks pulled it out. And they’re one game closer to a series win than the Knicks are.
Still, there’s plenty of reason for optimism for the Knicks heading into Game 2 on Wednesday night at the Garden. Randle showed himself to be too good a player this season, particularly against Atlanta, to have a repeat of Sunday’s game. By the law of averages, more of those 3s that the Knicks missed will start going in. The supporting cast showed it was capable of taking some of the load off Randle. And the team was 25-11 at home in the regular season.
The unsolvable issue may be Young, one of the few players who can hurt a team from anywhere on the court. When the Knicks played up on him, he drove around them. When they gave him room to operate, he got off his floater or found Hawks teammates for dunks. The answer may be to pack the paint and encourage him to shoot more from 3-point range, where he was a 34.3 percent shooter during the regular season, or to send more traps at him to force the ball out of his hands.
Even though Ntilikina was burned on Young’s game winner, he may get more time if Young continues to abuse the guards who had difficulty with him, like the starting guard Elfrid Payton, who continued to be ineffective.
The one constant for Game 2 is that Knicks fans will be out in force. Lee will be there screaming, and thousands of others will match him note for note. As Rose said about the opener, the fans gave the team “everything that we expected and probably a little bit more.”