Trae Young once again stuck to the Knicks and their fans masterfully.
The 2021 playoff villain and his Hawks essentially ended the Knicks’ season for a second straight spring, silencing the booed Garden crowd with 45 points and eight assists in a 117-111 win Tuesday night to push the Knicks ever closer to mathematical elimination.
RJ Barrett couldn’t match Young in the injury-free absence of leading scorer Julius Randle, finishing with 30 points and 13 rebounds for the Knicks, who now trail No. 10 Atlanta by six games for the final playing spot in the the Eastern Conference with just 10 to play.
“The position we find ourselves in, these are all must-play games. So that’s it. But you’re not out until you’re out, so keep fighting,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said after the game. “[Young’s] capacity will order two [defenders] on the ball, and we haven’t finished defending.
Of course, Young led Atlanta to a five-game ouster from the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs last spring. He heard profane chants directed at him in all three postseason games at the Garden, but noted that Tuesday’s crowd reaction “definitely wasn’t as strong as the playoffs.”
But the closest the Hawks came to enticing the Knicks or the MSG crowd was Clint Capela wiggling his index finger – a la Dikembe Mutombo – at Mitchell Robinson after a blocked shot in the first half.
“We knew we had to come here and take care of business first, so that was my main priority,” Young said. “I think the swag and what we were able to do on the court tonight and the energy we had in the huddle, I knew it was us against everybody.”
The two-time All-Star did not participate in the Christmas Day contest in New York this season due to COVID-19. The Knicks won that game via a triple-double by guard from the Kemba Walker stoppage, and they also won two games in Atlanta on Nov. 27 and Jan. 15.
“You know Trae is going to be Trae. He is special, of course. A special talent,” Barrett said. “Also, someone who has the ball the whole game is going to score. It is a given. But he certainly shouldn’t have been 45 or anything else.
“It was 3-1, the [season] series this year, so overall we did a good job. But today was tough, that’s for sure.
With Randle sidelined with a daily quadriceps injury, those clamoring to see 2020 lottery pick Obi Toppin get more minutes have gotten their wish for at least one game. Toppin had several dunks and finished with 10 points in 24 minutes in his third start of the season.
Alec Burks also contributed 21 points and Immanuel Quickley had 17 for the Knicks, who fell 30-42 to clinch a losing record after last year’s 41-31 resurgence. Bogdan Bogdanovic backed up Young by scoring 32 for the Hawks (36-36).
Without Randle, the offense mostly went through Barrett and the Knicks held a 12-point lead midway through the second quarter. But Young finished the half with 24 – including four 3-pointers – as the Hawks led 64-58 at intermission.
The Knicks used a 23-10 run in the third to take an 85-83 advantage, and with Young sitting to start the fourth, they extended their advantage to 10 from 3-pointers by Quickley and rookie Miles McBride. But Bogdanovic scored eight points in a 13-4 Atlanta surge to cut the deficit to one and Young connected from long range for a 105-105 game with just under three minutes left.
The next 3 points from Bogdanovic and De’Andre Hunter and two more buckets from Young broke the tie and put the Knicks – who shot 14 for 26 from the free throw line – down by six with 1:04 to go.
“There has been a sense of urgency all year. We just fight. That’s what we do,” Barrett said. “We’ve been honestly playing good basketball since the All-Star break. Some of those games are gone, but we can’t do anything but improve every day.