This is what you dream of as a basketball fan. This type of NBA Playoff series in which you're glued to each moment. It doesn't matter if you're part of the competing fan bases. You're invested just as much because you're afraid of the idea of missing the next big moment.
It's been an incredibly enjoyable series so far between the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks. After the Hawks opened up a big lead in Game 2, it looked as if Atlanta was on the verge of a commanding 2-0 lead before the Knicks came ROARING back to tie the series up. This series has everything you're looking for as a basketball fan. It's two young teams on the rise in the NBA who haven't been in the playoffs for quite some time now. But both of these teams are scrappy. Both have passionate fan bases that are just thrilled to be back in the spotlight come this time of the year. There's drama and new storylines building with each game. Let's break down why this series is quickly becoming the most exciting playoff series in the NBA right now.
TRAE YOUNG "THE VILLAIN"
This is one of the best entire storylines of the entire playoffs right now. Trae Young, who has become one of the top rising young talents in this league, has quickly become a bad guy in the eyes of New York Knicks fans. That's crucial for a number of reasons. First, if you're going to become a villain in the eyes of a fan base, there's probably no fan base you'd rather have it be than the New York Knicks. Those fans are some of the best in sports, and they are going to let you hear it on a nightly basis. In case you're not caught up to speed, this basically started after Game 1 in which Trae said "It's quiet in here" after the Hawks victory. That quote was all Knicks fans needed to create a target for the rest of the series (and probably the rest of Trae's career). It's fantastic for the sport of basketball. This league needs more rivalries, and this could be the start of something special.
The best part about it is that Trae is buying into the role perfectly. It's also amazing that Trae continues to play at a high level and feed off of the energy. So far in 2 games, Trae is averaging 31.0 PTS, 4.0 REB, 8.5 AST while shooting 51.2% from the field and 50.0% from deep. Young was even seen smiling at the crowd towards the end of the game as Knicks fans voiced their "opinions." After the Knicks come from behind victory in Game 2, Young walked off the floor saying "I'll see you in the A" which means he's excited to play in Atlanta if you're not familiar with street slang.
THE FANS ARE BACK
If you needed a reason to see why Playoff fans are the absolute best, then look no further than this series. The MSG crowd was electric and I was seriously concerned that MSG might suffer an earthquake if Obi Toppin threw down a poster dunk. Although there have been some "buzzkill" fans around the league, it's generally been incredible to see how much we truly missed having fans back in the stands. Remember when we watched the NBA Playoffs last year in the Bubble with just silence? Fun times, let's never do that again please. It's almost as if we all forget the impact that a possessed home crowd can have on a game. If you need an example, just look at the MSG crowd during the 3rd quarter of Game 2. It looked as if the Hawks were moments away from taking control of the entire series until the Knicks clawed back in the 3rd quarter, thanks in part to some chaotic energy from the fans. Atlanta went cold in the 3rd and the Knicks outscored the Hawks 32-18 in that quarter alone. Now, as the series shifts back to Atlanta, it will be interesting to see what type of crowd we get from the ATL.
HIT THE MUSIC. pic.twitter.com/JogKKdStmE— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) May 27, 2021
CONTRIBUTING PLAYERS STEPPING UP
While a lot of attention has been paid to Trae Young (Hawks) and Julius Randle (Knicks), some of the surrounding pieces from both teams have started to really impress with their play in this series. That's one of the best things about the Playoffs. We get to see these players step up when their teams need it the most. Some rise to the occasion and that confidence can completely change the type of player they are moving forward for the course of their careers. But it's not always the young players that step up when the lights are shining the brightest. Veteran guard Derrick Rose has been absolutely AWESOME so far in this series. Everyone knows the story with Rose and injuries over the course of his career, but it's been an absolute joy to see him thriving again in the playoffs. It's still amazing that Rose was acquired for so little. You want to try to tell me that any of the teams in the Playoffs couldn't use Derrick Rose in their rotation right now? With a young Knicks team that struggles to get some consistent offense at times, Rose has become one of the most important players in this series for the Knicks. So far in two games, Rose is averaging 21.5 PTS, 4.5 REB, and 4.5 AST while shooting 45.9% from the field and 42.9% from 3. First-round draft pick Obi Toppin started to show some serious signs of contribution during Game 2 for the Knicks. While some might have thought that Toppin was a disappointment during his rookie year, it's important to remind everyone that the light switch "clicks" on for young players at different times during their careers. Not every rookie hits the ground sprinting in this league. After a notable Game 2 performance, it will be interesting to see how Toppin performs for the rest of the series.
On the other side of the floor, there's some serious talent that looks like they are finding a groove in this series for the Atlanta Hawks. Personally, I thought De'Andre Hunter was a player who could shift the momentum of this series if he was running on all cylinders. Hunter impressed with his play in Game 2, and sometimes in the playoffs it only takes one game for a player to get his confidence all the way back. Hunter was having himself a great year before he missed some extended time due to injuries, so it will be interesting to see if his play can build off of the Game 2 performance. Do not overlook Bogdan Bogdanovic as well, who is not a stranger to performing in pressure types of situations. Bogdan has experience playing in championship games overseas and performing at a high level, so he's not afraid of the moment. After Game 2, he's definitely a player that Knicks fans will have their eye on moving forward as well.
CHESS MATCHES BETWEEN COACHES
Not only have the storylines with the players been fantastic, but the battle between two defensive-minded coaches is also a fun plot to watch. Tom Thibodeau (Knicks) and Nate McMillian (Hawks) are known for their ability to get their teams to get after it defensively. McMillian took over for the Hawks after they fired Lloyd Pierce during the regular season, and the Hawks have responded in a big way. One of the most interesting stories is how the Hawks have handled Julius Randle so far in this series. Throughout the regular season, Randle gave Atlanta nightmares, and it looks as if McMillian finally said "make someone else beat us." Randle has struggled so far, especially when it comes to getting his shot rolling. It's going to be interesting as the series progresses, to see if Randle can finally find his groove again because this Knicks team needs his offensive production. Thibs has always been a master of defense, and he seems at his best when he has a young scrappy team. This Knicks team is a joy to watch because there's simply no quit. They are going to keep coming at you regardless of the score, as we saw in Game 2.
WHAT TO WATCH MOVING FORWARD
This looks like a series that could go the distance, and for the sake of pure enjoyment for the basketball world overall, I hope it truly does go seven games. I'm still curious to see what happens with a couple of players throughout this series. John Collins is someone who I think could be in line for a big Game 3 performance. If you remember, Collins got into SERIOUS foul trouble early and often throughout Game 2. He'd end up finishing Game 2 with 0 points in 14 minutes, as well as 5 fouls. Collins should be motivated more than ever to come out and put up a big performance in the playoffs, especially in Game 3. Obviously, we are all going to be watching if Trae Young tries to drop 50 in a game moving forward, so we don't need to spend too much time on that one.
When it comes to the Knicks, I'm still intrigued by RJ Barrett and if the Knicks can try to run a little more offense through him. Barrett has shown some serious signs of progress during his second year in the NBA, and I keep waiting for that "notable" playoff performance from the young wing. His shooing percentages haven't been high (37.9% from the field) but Barrett has been impactful in other areas, averaging 13.5 PTS and 9.5 REB so far. The number of minutes that the Knicks lean on Derrick Rose is definitely going to be something to monitor. Rose played 38 MIN in Game 2, and he's become almost too important for this team to think about taking him off the floor moving forward.