The Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks have both learned how difficult the burden of expectations can be for teams fresh off a surprise playoff appearance.
However, the Hawks appear to be closer to finding their 2020-21 form than the Knicks heading into Saturday night, when Atlanta is scheduled to host New York in a rematch of a 2021 Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
Both teams will be completing a post-Thanksgiving back-to-back set after playing Friday night. The visiting Hawks earned their seventh straight win by rolling past the Memphis Grizzlies 132-100, and the host Knicks remained inconsistent with a 118-97 loss to the Phoenix Suns.
The Hawks have produced a dramatic turnaround this month. They are looking ready to establish themselves as a consistent Eastern Conference contender after beating the Knicks in five games last spring and then upsetting the Philadelphia 76ers in six games to reach the NBA semifinals for just the second time in 51 years.
However, the Hawks lost nine of their first 13 games this season before beating the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks 120-100 on Nov. 14. Atlanta's six subsequent wins have all come by at least 10 points, a span in which star point guard Trae Young has averaged 27.7 points per game while racking up four double-doubles -- including Friday, when he led all players with 31 points and 10 assists.
"I think the chemistry that you're starting to see -- they're playing better, they seem more connected out there on both ends of the floor," Hawks coach Nate McMillan said Friday night. "You don't win seven games in a row without playing good basketball and being connected. So I like what our guys have done.
"I like their focus the last couple weeks. They've just been locked in to what we need to do out on the floor."
The Knicks, who reached the playoffs last spring for the first time since 2013, raced out to a 5-1 start this season, raising the already-high hopes in the basketball-mad Big Apple. But New York is just 5-8 since then, a herky-jerky span in which it hasn't posted back-to-back wins.
The Knicks have often lacked consistency from quarter to quarter. Already this month, New York has overcome a 21-point deficit to beat the Bucks 113-98 on Nov. 5, trailed by 24 points before tying the Bucks in a 112-100 loss on Nov. 10 and squandered all of a 25-point lead against the Los Angeles Lakers before escaping with a 106-100 win on Tuesday.
Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau again lamented the lack of cohesion Friday night, when he pulled all his starters except Julius Randle before the midway point of the fourth quarter.
"Maximum effort and maximum concentration -- you have to put the two of those things together, and that's what gives you intensity," Thibodeau said. "There's no magic formula for this, no shortcuts. That's what intensity is. The guys that could do it day after day, those are the most intense guys."
--Field Level Media