NEW YORK — It’s being hyped as the largest indoor event in New York since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, with a crowd of 15,000 expected at Madison Square Garden.
For a long time, like back when Tom Thibodeau was an assistant coach with the Knicks in the late 1990s, playoff games were a routine part of spring time in New York.
Now, after seven silent seasons, Game 1 of a first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday night is shaping up as a Garden party.
“We know what basketball means to the city and so hopefully we can give them something to be proud of,” Thibodeau said. “We’ve got a special group of guys that have worked extremely hard all year long to put us in this position and now the challenge starts all over again.”
Julius Randle led the Knicks to a 41-31 finish in their first season under Thibodeau and their first postseason appearance since winning the Atlantic Division in 2012-13.
Atlanta interim coach Nate McMillan was fined $25,000 by the NBA this week after his comments that the league wants to see the Knicks successful. He clarified that he wasn’t suggesting any bias from the league during this series and said his players are excited about the atmosphere they will face.
“These guys want to play in front of fans,” he said. “I know it’s going to be a tough place to play, but we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
The Hawks are ending their own drought with their first playoff appearance since 2017, doing so after charging back from a 14-20 start to this season.
“We want to do something special. I’ve said that since I got here. I want to be different,” star guard Trae Young said. “This is going to be a fun opportunity, a fun stage to really do that.”
The Hawks also went 41-31, but the Knicks won the tiebreaker for the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage after sweeping the three-game season series.
Randle was dominant against Atlanta, with 44 points and nine rebounds in a Feb. 15 victory, then 40 points and 11 boards on April 21. He’s aware the Hawks will try to make containing the Most Improved Player award finalist a priority.
“I’ve just got to be prepared for whatever comes at me,” Randle said. “Whatever they throw my way, I’ll be prepared for it and it’s really not about what’s happened in the past. Whatever happens in the game, throughout the game, I’ve got to make the right plays, be aggressive and still make the right plays.”
PACKING THE PLACE
The Knicks began the season without fans and began allowing 10% percent capacity on Feb. 23. Capacity is set for 15,000 now and the Knicks say Games 1 and 2 are both sold out, with fully vaccinated fans expected to make up 90% of the crowd.
New York won 16 of its final 20 games. Atlanta went 27-11 under McMillan after firing Lloyd Pierce.
SIZING UP THE STYLES
The Hawks averaged 113.7 points, just outside the NBA’s top 10 in scoring this season. The Knicks were defense first under Thibodeau, finishing No. 1 in points allowed (104.7), opponent field goal percentage (44%) and opponent 3-point percentage (33.7%). The 1992-93 Knicks were the only other team in NBA history to lead the league in all three categories, according to Elias.
MEN IN THE MIDDLE
Atlanta’s Clint Capela led the NBA in rebounding and finished fourth in blocks. Right above him in that category was Nerlens Noel, who moved into New York’s starting lineup after Mitchell Robinson’s injuries.
Their matchup could be a key in a series with teams who appear evenly matched.
“I know we’re going to bring the grit, the grind, a New York-style play of basketball, and they can bring Atlanta,” Noel said. “So I think we’ll be all right on that aspect.”
CHANGING OF THE GUARD?
Thibodeau said he is giving consideration to putting guard Frank Ntilikina into his rotation as the Knicks prepare to deal with Young. Ntilikina played in just 33 games but is a good defensive player, and Thibodeau may want to look for a change at point guard after starter Elfrid Payton struggled down the stretch.
AP Sports Writer Paul Newberry in Atlanta contributed to this report.