In the three matchups between the Hawks and Knicks, Julius Randle has been an absolute thorn in the side of Atlanta — averaging 37.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 6.7 assists on 58.1% shooting from the field and 50% from behind the arc. For reference, Randle is averaging 24.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 6.0 assists per game on 45.6% shooting from the field and 41.1% from deep in the regular season. Simply put, the Hawks have had no answer for the man who has revived basketball in New York, and that must change if Atlanta wants to advance past the first round.
Randle is a finalist for the Most Improved Player award for a reason, and the two most improved areas of his game are his playmaking ability and three-ball. Randle, a career 34.2% three-point shooter, shot at a 41.1% clip this season from deep. He also nearly doubled his career-average in assists from 3.1 per game to 6.0. Randle can back smaller-bodied defenders down and beat them with a litany of moves in the post, but he also uses his athleticism, ball-handling, and shooting to terrorize bigger defenders on the perimeter — a true mismatch for almost any team — so what adjustments can Nate McMillan make to slow him down?
The answer isn’t simple. The Hawks 18th defensive rating ranking can be attributed to Clint Capela‘s presence because, without him, Atlanta would’ve likely been in the bottom-five of the league. He’s an elite rim protecter, but he’s also fleet of foot enough to guard on the perimeter. Still, that’s not where you want him throughout the entire game. He is at his best when he’s defending the paint, and that is where he will roam for most of the series.
De’Andre Hunter, John Collins, and even Solomon Hill could potentially see time covering the engine that makes the Knicks offense go. Randle bullied Collins in the post during the regular season, but I’m sure he’s salivating at the opportunity to redeem himself. Still, I don’t see McMillan using him as the primary option. Solo would strictly be used to shadow Randle, but I’m not sure the Hawks can afford to have him on the court due to his offensive deficiencies. Plus, it’s not like he had much success slowing him down during the regular season either.
Hunter is the X-Factor in this discussion. When healthy, he’s the team’s best perimeter defender. However, when guarding Randle, you also have to defend in the post. Is the second-year wing strong enough for that challenge? That’s the million dollar question, and it could be the deciding factor in this series.
Nate McMillan also has a potential ace up his sleeve in rookie Onyeka Okongwu. I’ve gone back and forth between whether Okongwu will get minutes in this series. He’s shown a ton of progression over the last couple of months, but still, this is a big moment for a rookie who has played so little. With that being said, if you could build a guy in a lab that could potentially defend Randle, he’d look like Okongwu. I wouldn’t be surprised if McMillan gave him an opportunity early in the series just to test the waters; however, it’s a long shot that he sees significant minutes — if he sees the floor at all.
In reality, it will be a combination of the aforementioned players with differing strategies for each matchup. Quick or slow to help, different rotations and other schemes could potentially stifle Randle and the Knicks offense. I think Hill and Hunter will be the most effective in terms of perimeter defense, with the rest of the team sagging when he backs the smaller defenders in the post. The Hawks will have to rotate fast as Randle can recognize double teams and exploit them, and the Knicks are a fantastic three-point shooting team. The Hawks can only hope to slow Randle, but with Hunter back in the fold, they have another gun in their arsenal to do so.