Trae Young masterfully stuck it to the Knicks and their fans once again.
The 2021 postseason villain and his Hawks essentially have ended the Knicks’ season for a second consecutive spring, silencing the booing Garden crowd with 45 points and eight assists in a 117-111 victory Tuesday night to push the Knicks ever-closer to mathematical elimination.
RJ Barrett couldn’t fully match Young in leading-scorer Julius Randle’s injury absence, finishing with 30 points and 13 rebounds for the Knicks, who now trail No. 10 Atlanta by six games for the final play-in berth in the Eastern Conference with just 10 to play.
“The position we’re in, they’re all must-have games. So that’s it. But you’re not eliminated until you’re eliminated so keep fighting,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said after the game. “[Young’s] ability is gonna command two [defenders] on the ball, and we didn’t finish our defense.”
Of course, Young led Atlanta to a five-game ousting of the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs last spring. He heard profane chants directed at him during the three postseason games at the Garden, but noted that Tuesday’s crowd reaction “definitely wasn’t as loud as the playoffs.”
But the closest any of the Hawks came to inciting the Knicks or the MSG crowd was Clint Capela wagging his index finger — a la Dikembe Mutombo — at Mitchell Robinson after a first-half blocked shot.
“We knew we needed to come up here and take care of business first off, 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 versus everybody.”
The two-time All-Star didn’t play in the Christmas Day contest in New York this season due to COVID-19. The Knicks won that matchup via a triple-double by since-shutdown guard Kemba Walker, and they also took two games in Atlanta on Nov. 27 and Jan. 15.
“You know Trae’s gonna be Trae. He’s special, of course. Special talent,” Barrett said. “Also, someone who has the ball all game is gonna score. That’s a given. But definitely shouldn’t have had 45 or whatever he had.
“It was 3-1, the [season] series this year, so overall we did a good job. But today was a tough one for sure.”
With Randle sidelined with a day-to-day quadriceps injury, those clamoring to see 2020 lottery pick Obi Toppin get more minutes got their wish for at least one game. Toppin flushed multiple 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 to 30-42 to clinch a losing record following last year’s 41-31 resurgence. Bogdan Bogdanovic supported Young by netting 32 for the Hawks (36-36).
Without Randle, the offense mostly ran 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 carried a 64-58 lead into intermission.
The Knicks used a 23-10 run in the third to grab an 85-83 advantage, and with Young sitting down to start the fourth, they stretched their advantage to 10 on 3-pointers by Quickley and rookie Miles McBride. But Bogdanovic netted eight points in a 13-4 Atlanta spurt to close the gap back to one and Young connected from long distance for a 105-105 game with just under three minutes remaining.
Subsequent 3-pointers by Bogdanovic and De’Andre Hunter and two more buckets by Young snapped the tie and put the Knicks — who shot 14-for-26 from the free-throw line — down by six with 1:04 to go.
“It’s been a sense of urgency all year. We just fight. That’s what we do,” Barrett said. “We’ve been playing great basketball honestly since the All-Star break. Some of these games have slipped away, but there’s nothing else we can do besides just get better every day.”