Free Picks: New York Knicks vs. Atlanta Hawks, 2021 Eastern Conference Playoffs Round 1

Alex Murray
Alex Murray
NBA Free Picks – Best Bets of the Week
New York Knicks vs Atlanta Hawks - 2021 NBA Playoffs Round 1
New York Knicks vs. Atlanta Hawks, Wednesday, Hawks wins series 4-1

What started out as perhaps the most exciting and promising first round series in these 2021 NBA playoffs, turned out to be a one-sided affair as the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks came in and beat the fourth-seeded New York Knicks twice in the jam-packed Madison Square Garden to help push them to a 4-1 series win and a second-round date with the top seed in the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia 76ers.

Series Results: Hawks wins series 4-1

The first two games of this series were both thrillers, with each team taking a tight game at Madison Square Garden before the series moved to Atlanta for a pair of contests. That trip to Georgia did not go well for the New York Knicks, who lost both away games to fall behind the Atlanta Hawks 3-1 in the series. There seemed to be some resolve among the Knickerbockers to force the series back to Atlanta for Game 6, but that never came to fruition on Wednesday.

The Knicks lost the final three games of the series by 11 points, 17 points, and 14 points as it became all too clear that they simply did not have enough firepower on the offensive end to keep up with these other playoff teams on a regular basis. They held Atlanta to just 104 points per game, which was New York’s average for opponents in the regular season, but Tom Thibodeau’s side is a couple of floor-spacing sharpshooters from being a serious contender.

The Hawks, meanwhile, continued to play at the very high rate they’ve been at since interim head coach Nate MacMillan took over a couple of months ago. They have been a different club since that happened, and the return of shooters DeAndre Hunter and Bogdan Bogdanovic after extended absences due to injuries has only exacerbated that feeling around the team.

They now face a much tougher task with the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers, who not only have a bevy of strong outside shooters, but an MVP candidate waiting for them in the paint as well. If the frail Joel Embiid can’t get over his knee issues, however, the Hawks could be a great NBA pick as a darkhorse to make the Eastern Conference Finals.

Game 1

May 23, 07:00 p.m., Madison Square Garden

Other than the Phoenix Suns out in the Western Conference, there has been no bigger surprise in the NBA this season than the resurrection of the New York Knicks by hard-nosed head coach Tom Thibodeau, who has instituted a winning culture and belief in the organization for the first time in nearly a decade when Carmelo Anthony was still roaming the hardwood at Madison Square Garden.

This time, however, it’s not a one-man show, but a group effort—though that group has a pretty clear leader. That leader is Julius Randle, who is a shoo-in for the Most Improved Player award and is likely to even get a few votes for MVP after the revelatory season he just had.

The guy has completely transformed his game, setting countless career highs during this campaign, including but not limited to: his 24.1 points per game, 6.0 assists per game (his previous high was 3.1), and 10.2 rebounds per game. His efficiency is the most crucial part, however: he set career highs in three-point shooting with a 41 percent mark from downtown (previous high was 34) and free throw shooting with an 81 percent clip from the charity stripe (previous high of 73).

Randle is a big reason we’re going to go with the Knicks on our NBA pick here, but not the only one. Drastic improvements in the games of RJ Barrett and Derrick Rose have also been catalysts, with the latter looking more and more like the Derrick Rose of old with each passing game. Taj Gibson has been surprisingly effective coming off the bench as well, while rookie Immanuel Quickley is capable of exploding for 25-30 points at any moment.

The one thing that all of these guys have done well with great consistency is play defense. New York tops basically every defensive statistic you can name, and the credit for that needs to be shared from players, to trainers, to coaching staff, to brass, all of which clearly put an added emphasis on defense this year which has paid off tenfold.

New York also won all three meetings with the Hawks this season, and they’ve gone 8-1-1 against the spread over the past 10 total matchups. The Hawks have struggled specifically at MSG, where they have gone 1-4 ATS in their last five games. Not exactly encouraging statistics for the Atlanta faithful.

And we agree, which is why we’re making the Knicks’ -1 NBA point spread one of our best bets for today, especially with those lovely –110 NBA odds. We just can’t picture these small and fragile guards like Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Kevin Huerter navigating, getting comfortable, and finding a rhythm in the midst of Thibodeau’s suffocating defense.

Not to mention the fact that the Knicks have been absolutely lights out when they play at the Garden this season. Their 22-13-1 ATS mark at home this season is good for a tie for fifth in the NBA, and their mark gets even better when they come into a home game as the favorite, going an NBA-best 13-4 ATS in that scenario.

It’s not just against the spread that they have home success though, so if you’re looking to make a moneyline wager, have no fear, the Knickerbockers are here! They’re eighth in the NBA with a 25-11 straight home record, but it’s that record as a home favorite that really has us convinced that this is a can’t miss NBA pick for Sunday.

Apart from the porous Oklahoma City Thunder who won the one game this season in which they were the home favorites (surprising, I know), no one had a better winning percentage as a home favorite than the Knicks: they went an astronomical 16-1 straight up when that was the case. Talk about a sure thing, am I right?


Game 2 (Hawks leads series 1-0)

May 26, 07:30 p.m., Madison Square Garden

As has usually been the case for Tom Thibodeau’s New York Knicks this season, it was a hard-fought and low-scoring game with both teams barely eclipsing 100 points. The largest lead for the Atlanta Hawks was 11, and for the Knicks, it was seven. The fourth quarter is when this one really started getting spicy and the Garden started getting loud and rowdy.

It was a two-point lead for the Knicks heading into the final frame, and during those final 12 minutes, neither team went ahead by more than six points. Seat edges were being sat on, butts were clenched, and breaths were held as both teams traded impressive shots and defensive stops in one of the most evenly matched Game 1s we saw over the weekend.

We had the Knicks to take the opener at home, which did not work out for us, but I can’t imagine this team going down 0-2 headed to Atlanta with the possibility of getting swept. Thibodeau has been here before, and doubtless he will impart a feeling of absolute urgency to his team in the lead up to Game 2. The team could honestly look at this as an elimination game, because going down 0-2 to a lower seed means trouble nearly every single time.

With that in mind, we love the idea of a tasty Knicks NBA point spread as our best bet for today, and considering we found one through online sportsbook 22Betoffering lovely -102 NBA odds on a -2.5 point spread, the value is too much to pass up. We’re going with the Knickerbockers to cover the spread and even the series up at one game apiece as one of our top picks for today.

There are a few betting trends that have pushed us towards that NBA pick for this clash as well. First of all, Sunday was the first time the Hawks had covered at the Garden in their last five tries and it was also their first cover in their last eight overall meetings with N.Y. Trae Young didn’t seem fazed by the fans and the atmosphere at MSG in Game 1, but we’ll see if he can stay that confident and cocky throughout the series.

The Hawks have also not played well on Wednesdays lately, going 1-5-1 against the spread in their last seven contests on that day of the week while also putting up a 1-5 ATS mark over their last six road games. Trends are all well and good, but it’s really the coach that has to come up with the right rotations, matchups, and gameplans, and the players that have to execute out there on the hardwood.

For example, bringing on a guy who has not played all game to guard one of the best scorers in basketball on the final play of a tie game is one of the silliest moves you can make, and that’s exactly what Thibodeau did on Sunday. Frank Ntilikina is a defensive stopper and probably the best defensive guard on the team, but he was sitting on the bench all night before getting the call for the final play, which meant he was going in there cold as a Wisconsin winter breeze.

Why not leave Derrick Rose in there for the final play? He’s one of the most experienced players on the team and it’s not like he’s a liability on that end. It seems perfectly reasonable to expect him to be able to handle and/or slow Young on that final play. After Rose played 38 minutes and starter Elfrid Payton played just eight, we would expect Thibodeau to finally admit fault and insert the former MVP into the starting five.

Big nights from bench scorers Alec Burks and Immanuel Quickley were a welcome sight for the Knickerbockers, but their two big dogs, Julius Randle and Canadian sophomore RJ Barrett, combined to go just 12-for-37 from the field on the night, which is a big reason why the game stayed so close throughout and New York lost in the end.

We like the Knicks as our best bet for today because we expect solid bounce back performances from both Randle and Barrett, and with the added boost of having Rose in there from the tip, the Knicks should be able to come through for us, cover their minuscule NBA point spread, and tie this series up at one apiece.


Game 3 (series tied 1-1)

May 28, 07:00 p.m., State Farm Arena

Just like in Game 1, the Atlanta Hawks jumped all over the New York Knicks in the opening frame in front of the raucous Madison Square Garden crowd. They began the game on a 22-12 run, but the Knicks finished the quarter strong and went into the first break down seven.

The deficit hovered around that level for much of the second quarter as well, with the Knicks making several mini-runs that got the crowd popping off, only for their momentum to be sapped by a big-time crowd-quieting shot from a Hawk, usually from Trae Young.

The Knicks actually went down as many as 15 in that second frame and went into the halftime break down 13. After going down 12 points on a DeAndre Hunter triple with 6:03 left in the third quarter, the Knicks doubled-down on their defensive clamps and turned this mother around.

The Hawks hit just one field goal for the rest of the frame, allowing the Knicks to go on an 18-5 run to finish off the quarter and take a one-point lead heading into the fourth. It was more of the same in the final 12, as the Knicks took full advantage of Young’s absence to go on a 12-3 run to build a double-digit lead in the first four minutes of the frame.

But then, here comes Trae. Right after he entered the game, his team went on a 13-3 run to tie the Knicks up at 91 apiece. But New York’s vaunted defense said ‘not today, pal,’ as they held the Hawks without a made field goal in the final five minutes, finishing the game off on a 10-1 run that sent the series to Atlanta all even.

The New York fans were once again a big part of the game, and there’s something to be said about a fanbase that has waited eight years for a playoff game and over a year for any kind of live basketball at all. The Knicks were clearly feeding off of their energy at times, especially on defense.

New York showing their ability to completely shut down Atlanta’s offense for several minutes at a time—even with Trae Young on the floor—leads us to believe that the NBA pick to make for Game 3 in Georgia is once again on the Knickerbockers.

A lot of credit needs to go to Thibodeau, who recognized what wasn’t working and fixed his rotation where he needed to. Elfrid Payton has likely played his final competitive minutes of this series, and getting Derrick Rose in there to start the third quarter was a master stroke.

Slotting Taj Gibson in with the starters for the third also worked well, as Gibson and Rose have great chemistry from their Chicago and Minnesota days together. And then, once they took the lead, guys like Alec Burks and Obi Toppin came in and not only maintained it, but built it up to a double-digit advantage.

Their defense on Young was also much-improved, holding him to just 10 points on eight shots in the second half. He also failed to reach the charity stripe in the final seven and a half minutes of the game after he killed New York from the foul line in crunch time of Game 1, going 9-for-9 in the closing minutes.

Their strategy of doubling up and blitzing Young to get him to get rid of the ball—or turn it over, which he did a game-high five times in Game 2—was clearly a boon for the Knicks. The fact that Atlanta continued chucking up triples despite the fact that they couldn’t buy a bucket bodes well for the Knicks moving forward as well as our Game 3 NBA pick.

Clint Capela, the league’s rebounding leader in the regular season, has also been completely neutralized on the boards and on the offensive end, which is no small feat. If Derrick Rose can continue to play 38+ minutes and the defensive intensity stays up, the Knicks should have no problem taking care of business and us on our best bet for today.

And remember, that big performance for New York came with their best player, Julius Randle, the newly minted Most Improved Player in the NBA, scoring just 15 points on 5-for-16 shooting from the field. This is his first postseason and he’s the best player on a Knicks team that is being treated like city saviors—you can understand why he might’ve been a little jittery.

But there will be none of that at State Farm Arena. Randle averaged 36 against these guys in three regular season meetings, so that potency is going to rear its head at some point in this series. We honestly like the Knicks to win this one, but sportsbooks are loving the Hawks, so we’re getting a lovely New York +3.5 NBA point spread at +100 NBA odds that’ll put hearts in your eyes as our top pick.


Game 4 (Hawks Leads Series 2-1)

May 30, 01:00 p.m., State Farm Arena

(Playoff Betting Record: 14-8, +5.45 Units)


The basketball gods blessed the basketball mecca that is Madison Square Garden with two of the best games of this postseason so far, but apparently they couldn’t keep the magic going in Georgia. Game 3 in Atlanta started off as a pretty back and forth affair, but about midway through the second quarter the Atlanta Hawks went on a run to close out the first half leading by 14.

They must have drawn little confidence from that big a lead considering they had similar advantages at halftime in Games 1 and 2, and those were far from comfortable in the second half for Atlanta. Friday night was a different proposition altogether, as the Hawks got up and never let up for the rest of the game. In the final 30 or so minutes of game time the New York Knicks never even got within single digits of the Hawks.

It was not an encouraging performance for the Knicks at all, as they were held to their lowest point total of the series so far, a display that included a brutal 13-point second quarter where they let the Hawks blow the game wide open. If the Knickerbockers are going to make this a series, they’re going to have to get their defensive mindsets back in sync and quickly, because if they go down 3-1 I really fear for them.

Another somewhat worrisome aspect of that win for Atlanta was the fact that Trae Young had only 21 points on subpar efficiency for his standards (8-for-19 from the field) and instead dished out 14 assists as his sharpshooters seemingly all caught fire at once on Friday night. Clearly, they were happy to be back in Georgia after the wild scene they were a part of in the Big Apple.

The Hawks pretty much could not miss from beyond the arc, hitting 16 triples while shooting that thang at just under a 60 percent clip. Danilo Gallinari nailed all four of his tries from deep, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter both went 3-for-4, John Collins went 2-for-5, and DeAndre Hunter and Lou Williams both hit a triple as well. To me, that is clearly not sustainable, and we’re betting our NBA pick on it not happening again.

But let me rephrase that: it’s not sustainable if the Knicks get out on shooters. New York was lazy out there on Friday, only contesting 10 of Atlanta’s 27 tries from beyond the arc. Those Hawks guys were taking warm up jumpers with no contest all night long, no wonder they were shooting the lights out.

New York was the best defensive team in the league during the regular season, and part of that was about hustling to get out on shooters: they were ninth in the association with 21.7 three-point shot contests per game. And sure enough, Tom Thibodeau’s hard-nosed squad was contesting 27.0 three-point shots per game during the first two matchups of this series. If our top pick on the Knicks is going to hit, they’ll have to show a lot more heart and hustle.

I believe they are more than capable of that, because they’ve shown they can grit and grind out wins when they need to. Not to mention the fact that the Knicks can’t really shoot any worse than they did in Game 3. Apart from Derrick Rose, who was sparkling once again with 30 points on 13-for-21 shooting, the team shot 24 percent from deep and 27 percent from the field overall. That’s awful.

Rose accounted for just under half of the teams field goals on the night, with the rest of his Knickerbocker teammates combining to make just 16 shots all game long. Nerlens Noel and Julius Randle did some damage at the free throw line, combining to go 18-for-20, but it simply was not enough.

Randle was especially bad… again. He was just 2-for-15 from the floor, and both of his makes came from beyond the arc. He just can’t find his touch around the rim or in the mid-range game, missing five shots in the paint and three more in the mid-range on Friday. It’s going to have to click for the NBA’s Most Improved Player at some point, right?

I think so. This was a breakout year for Randle, and with a guy like Rose reinventing himself to carry the team right now, surely Randle will take a long look in the mirror and put the onus on himself to focus up and find his range on the offensive end. The Knicks can’t win when the guy who’s supposed to be their best player is hitting two shots in 35 minutes out there.

I like Randle and the Knicks to bounce back from a very lackluster performance and force Atlanta’s shooters to take tougher shots moving forward in this series. We’re going with New York at a +4.5 NBA point spread with -110 NBA odds in Game 4 as one of our best bets for today.

BET ON NEW YORK KNICKS +4.5 POINT SPREAD (-110 odds, 888sport)

Game 5 (Hawks leads series, 3-1)

June 2, 07:30p.m., Madison Square Garden

(Playoff Betting Record: 19-13, +5.09 Units)

Game 4 seemed like it might be a breakthrough for the Knicks, as they jumped out to a 26-25 lead at the end of the first quarter, ending the trend of Atlanta jumping out to big leads that had been happening in the first three games of the series. Unfortunately, they could not keep up with the Hawks, and were eventually outscored by 18 points across the second and third frames.

Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter continued to shoot the ball well from deep, combining to go 7-for-14 from beyond the arc in Game 4, but it was the emergence of a couple of other supporting characters on Sunday in Atlanta that really carried Atlanta to victory once again.

Danilo Gallinari had been a big fat zero through the first two games, but he woke up when he arrived in Georgia. Maybe something about peaches gets him excited. Either way, the Rooster began hooping when the series moved to Atlanta, going 4-for-4 from downtown in Game 3 before pouring in 21 points on 6-for-9 shooting from the field in Game 4. He wasn’t the only guy to awaken from a slumber upon arrival in Georgia, however.

John Collins also bounced back after scoring zero points on 0-for-2 shooting from the field during the Game 2 loss, contributing 14 points on 6-for-11 points in Game 3 before going off for 22 points on 6-for-10 shooting, including a 2-for-3 mark from three-point land, in Game 4.

If Trae Young had been firing on all cylinders on Sunday as well, this game could’ve been a lot uglier for the Knicks, as Ice Trae went just 4-for-14 from behind the three-point line. Unfortunately for New York, Game 4 was definitely one that got away from them, despite the fact that it ended in a 17-point deficit, the largest margin of victory through four games of this excellent first round matchup.

Julius Randle finally came out of his shell—kinda. He scored 23 points and dished out seven dimes, but surely head coach Tom Thibodeau is hoping for better efficiency than 7-for-19 from the field moving forward. Those five turnovers were not doing his team any favors either, especially considering the rest of the team committed only four all game long.

And it turns out, those turnovers were actually crucial to the result of Game 4. While the Knickerbockers turned their opponents more than vice versa, forcing 10 on the night, the Hawks took full advantage of each and every one of New York’s nine turnovers to score 22 points, while the Knicks scored just six points off of 10 Atlanta turnovers.

New York was completely out of sorts on most of their fast break opportunities following steals or Hawks turnovers, making silly play after boneheaded play. The good news for the Knicks, is that these seem to be silly, jitter-induced mistakes, not a lack of quality.

That means the Knicks still have a very real shot in this series if they can really clamp down and lock in on the defensive end while limiting the mistakes on offense and taking full advantage when their opponent makes a mistake. The sportsbooks like New York to send the series back to Atlanta, and we back that sentiment with our NBA pick for Game 5 here.

Another caveat to note from Game 4 is that the Knicks’ crucial midseason pick up, veteran point guard Derrick Rose, was not his usual potent self, going just 7-for-15 from the field for 18 points while posting a game-low -22 plus-minus for the game. RJ Barrett had a solid game, however, going 8-for-15 from the field for 21 points with four dimes and zero turnovers.

That’s the type of efficient and mistake-free performance that Thibodeau and his coaching comrades need from a lot more players apart from just their young Canuck. Rookie Obi Toppin also played well, putting up 13 efficient points, but when Bullock, Alec Burks, and Immanuel Quickley combine to go 4-for-19 (all four makes courtesy of Burks) from the field for the Knicks, it’s going to be hard for them to have success.

If Barrett and Randle can both play the type of basketball that Barrett did in Game 4, Rose can get back to his Game 1 and Game 2 levels, and the Knickerbocker sharpshooters can get back on track from deep, N.Y. should have success on Wednesday. That is all, of course, supplementary to Thibodeau’s hounding defense, which must slow a very talented Atlanta team on the offensive end.

We’re not sure New York can still win this series, but we definitely believe that they can play well enough at home to at least extend this series for one more game. We’re taking New York’s -2.5 NBA point spread at lovely +103 NBA odds as one of our best bets for a loaded Wednesday night slate.


Alex is an alumnus of Ryerson University's RTA Sport Media program, a contributing NHL, NBA, and MLB writer in the team. He has been writing on sports, betting, and fantasy contests for several years, including pitstops as an NFL Editor for theScore and as one of the lead NBA news writers for fantasy sports site FantasyPros. As a lifelong athlete, bettor, and sports fan, Alex is uniquely qualified to help you reach the sports betting success that you've always dreamed of and your wife never believed you could achieve.