The Hawks jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the first-round series Sunday in front of 16,458 fans with a 113-96 win in Atlanta, but coach Nate McMillan was quick to remind his team of what lies around the corner.
"As I told our guys, this game will be the hardest game of the series to close a team out," McMillan said. "We know they're gonna come and they're gonna fight. This will be the hardest game of the series. I expect it to be physical. I expect both teams to come with urgency in this next game."
The physical nature of the series -- as well as some of the chippiness -- was on full display on Sunday.
During an early timeout in the first half, Atlanta's Trae Young and New York's Taj Gibson had words with each other. In the third quarter, Hawks forward John Collins took an elbow to the mouth from Knicks forward Julius Randle on a layup attempt. The cut caused by the hit needed four stitches to close.
Then at the end of the game, after replays showed Atlanta's Danilo Gallinari running into New York's Reggie Bullock under the basket after a shot, Bullock stormed toward the Hawks bench in the timeout that followed, picking up a technical foul.
On the ensuing Hawks possession, Randle gave a forearm shove back to Gallinari while he was guarding him -- drawing a flagrant foul from the officials and also some high-fives and celebratory hugs from his teammates.
"I just be trying to keep it basketball," Young said. "I don't care if they are in their feelings or who's mad and who's not. It's just basketball at the end of the day. We're just trying to win. All the extra stuff, it is what it is. We're locked in. We're focused on us and we're trying to win a game."
Collins said he could sense the frustration from the Knicks toward the end of the game but added that's what he expects in a playoff series.
"You play a team so many times, things are going to happen," Collins said. "I feel like at the end, guys really aren't going to like each other too much on top of New York playing a physical style of basketball. Obviously, we're going to get tired of pushed around and hit and whatnot. It is what it is in a sense, guys are competing. It's playoff basketball. We just try to avoid the noise and handle business."
As for Bullock's charge to the bench, Gallinari said he wasn't even aware that was happening. "I was just going back to the bench to get my water to be honest," Gallinari said. "I wasn't really paying attention to what was happening. But I think that that would be the normal reaction when you lose a game like this. It's something to be expected and that's OK. We're all competitors. We hate to lose."
Collins said the Hawks were able to match the Knicks' physicality from the start after starting out with the mindset that they weren't going to let the Knicks' style get to them. It also helped that Young continued his outstanding play so far in the playoffs. Young finished with 27 points and nine assists, leading the team in both categories.
In fact, Young has led the Hawks in scoring and assists outright in all four games in the playoff series. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Young is just the second player in NBA history to accomplish that in his first four career playoff games, joining Hall of Famer Dave Bing, who achieved the feat in 1968 with the Detroit Pistons. Elias also noted that Young has now created 204 points in his first four playoff games -- the second most of any player in the past 25 seasons.
But perhaps even more important to the Hawks' success was the team's ability to win the minutes when Young was off the court.
In the three regular-season games against New York, which Atlanta was swept in, the Hawks were plus-16 when Young was on the floor and minus-42 when he was on the bench, posting a negative plus-minus when he was sitting in all three games.
This series, it's been a different story. The Hawks won the non-Young minutes in Games 1 and 3, which they won, and lost them in Game 2 at Madison Square Garden. On Sunday, Atlanta was even when Young sat, but that's mostly because of the minutes the reserves played late in the game. The Hawks were plus-9 before emptying the bench with 3:05 to play.
Now, Young and the Hawks travel back to New York, where Young was the subject of taunts from the New York faithful throughout Games 1 and 2. And as they did in the first game, they'll be looking to quiet the crowd one last time.
"Obviously, the last one is the toughest. The last one to get is going to be the toughest," Young said. "We're know they're probably going to be a little more physical, a little more aggressive, play with a lot more energy. But for us, we gotta do the same thing. We can't just be complacent with what we've done at home. We gotta bring even more energy on the road."