Knicks staring down critical Game 2 vs. Hawks

No one associated with the Knicks used the term “must-win” during their media availability on Tuesday, but it certainly feels close to that level after they dropped their first-round series opener Sunday at home to instant public enemy Trae Young and the Hawks.

Game 2 on Wednesday night figures to be another electric and combative atmosphere inside the Garden, with another boisterous crowd in excess of 15,000 seeking to help will the Knicks to a split before heading to Atlanta for the next two games.

The Knicks have been a resilient team all season under first-year coach Tom Thibodeau, but they will need to make the necessary adjustments defensively against Young, possibly a lineup tweak at point guard and better offensive execution following poor Game 1 performances from All-Star forward Julius Randle and others.

“We don’t like losing. Obviously, we want to win every single game. We want to win all the time. … So we’re definitely motivated to go and get the next one,” second-year guard RJ Barrett said after practice Tuesday via Zoom. “This is the NBA. You win some, you lose some. Just got to always bounce back. That’s what it’s really about.

“We’re feeling good, we’re feeling motivated and we’re ready to go.”

Derrick Rose #4 and Julius Randle #30 of the New York Knicks
Derrick Rose and Julius Randle
Getty Images

The numbers will become far more daunting for the Knicks without evening the series in Game 2. Only 7 percent of NBA teams that have fallen behind 2-0 in any postseason series in league history have rebounded to win it — just 27 of 426 entering this year.

With another loss, the Knicks would have to take four of the final five games, with three of them to be played on the road at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.

“Just got to play stronger, go over the execution we went over on film, be more detailed, and just be ready to go out there and slug it out,” veteran center Taj Gibson said. “We had a chance to win [Game 1] and we’ve got to execute better down the stretch.

“It’s the playoffs, we know they’re going to make some good runs. They’re a talented team, but we just have to focus on ourselves and understand what we need to do and follow the game plan.”

Any game plan largely must center around slowing Young, who nailed the game-winning floater with 0.9 seconds remaining to quiet the crowd that had been directing profane chants at him throughout the opener.

The 6-foot-1 guard also got to the free-throw line nine times, all in the fourth quarter, and knocked down every free throw, finishing with a game-high 32 points and 10 assists in the 107-105 Atlanta win.

“My thing is I just want consistency,” Thibodeau said of the fourth-quarter fouls. “I really don’t care how the game is called. It can be called tight, it can be called loose, just be consistent.

“And if that happens there’s a ton of plays that can go either way. It’s a tough job, but it seemed like it was different in the fourth. You don’t want to see that.”

Thibodeau avoided the latest question Tuesday about potential changes to the lineup, one day after not ruling out sitting down ineffective starting point guard Elfird Payton, who played eight scoreless minutes in the series opener.

Allocating those minutes to Frank Ntilikina, who came in cold off the bench to guard Young on the final possession, also would enable Thibodeau to keep his second unit — led by guards Derrick Rose, Alec Burks and Immanuel Quickley — intact.

“We lost the game by two points. It really came down to a loose ball. So we got to figure out how to make the effort play,” Thibodeau said. “At the end of three quarters we were in a good spot. We didn’t close the third quarter as well as we should have.

“That’s what you have to know — in a playoff game, sometimes it is one possession. So we just have to make it happen.”

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