National Basketball Association
NBA playoff dispatches: Hawks pull one back at home, Knicks swarm Cavs
National Basketball Association

NBA playoff dispatches: Hawks pull one back at home, Knicks swarm Cavs

Updated Apr. 22, 2023 4:17 a.m. ET

FOX Sports writers are providing takeaways off games throughout the NBA playoffs. Here are their thoughts from the opening day of the first round.

Hawks 130, Celtics 122: Hawks steal one

After smashing the Atlanta Hawks in their first game and then steadily pulling away in the second one, the Boston Celtics apparently decided a solid fourth quarter would be enough to get the job done in Game 3 of their best-of-seven first-round series.

They were wrong. But not by much.

The Hawks now trail in the series 2-1 after their 130-122 victory, avoiding the dreaded 3-0 series hole, out of which no team in NBA history has escaped. 

Game 4 is Sunday, and it's a safe bet that the Celtics won't take the Hawks quite this lightly again. The league's third-best defense allowed Atlanta to score 74 first-half points while shooting 65%. If the Celtics felt no sense of urgency, it's because the Hawks' lackadaisical perimeter defense allowed them to stay within striking distance by knocking down open 3s. Boston took 22 of them in the first half and made 15, a near 70% clip. That was good enough to stay within seven at halftime.

The Hawks' lead was still seven going into the final 12 minutes when Boston decided to ramp up their defense. The effect was immediate. Atlanta committed four turnovers in the first 2 1/2 minutes. The Celtics turned every one of them into a layup or tip-in, trimming the deficit to one. 

Despite multiple chances to tie or take the lead, though, the Celtics couldn't turn the tide. Twice, down by two, they coaxed the Hawks into missing shots but couldn't snare the subsequent rebound. 

"I thought they capitalized on their second-chance opportunities, unlike in the first two games," said Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla.

The biggest sequence came with 2:45 left and Atlanta leading 118-116. Trae Young missed a finger-roll layup and Clint Capela's tip-in attempt didn't fall, either, but ball went out of bounds off Boston. Dejounte Murray then missed a pull-up 12-footer on the subsequent inbound play, but the ball went out of bounds off Boston once again. The Hawks finally appeared stuck, Al Horford thwarting Young's drive to the hoop with the shot clock winding down, but Young circled back to the arc and buried a three-pointer to push the lead back to five.

Marcus Smart, though, refused to concede. His layup cut the lead to three once again and, once again, it appeared as if the Celtics' defense might squeeze an empty possession out of the Hawks, Murray trapped in the left corner by Derrick White and the shot clock about to expire. Murray, leaping and fading, managed to get off a shot and hit nothing but net.

"I thought Trae hit a tough shot, I thought Murray hit a tough shot," said Mazzulla. "They hit a lot of big shots."

But Smart answered again with a three-pointer and when Jaylen Brown ripped the ball from Atlanta's DeAndre Hunter on the subsequent possession, it looked as if, maybe, finally, the Celtics could tip the scales. Brown gave it to Al Horford, who threw it crosscourt to a wide open Jayson Tatum for the potential game-tying 3. But his attempt banged off the back rim and Boston's best last chance at a comeback ended. Young, who struggled mightily in the first two games of the series, scored Atlanta's final six points, four of them from the free-throw line, to finish with a game-high 32 points and nine assists.

"The whole team was making plays the whole night," Young said. "It's not always about scoring. I just tried to make the right play and tonight I did that."

— Ric Bucher

Knicks 99, Cavaliers 79: Knicks put the clamps on Cavs

With less than 10 minutes remaining inside Madison Square Garden, the only thing missing was balloons dropping from the ceiling. 

Obi Toppin found Mitchell Robinson with a no-look dish for a slam over Jarrett Allen. J.B. Bickerstaff begrudgingly called timeout. The DJ at MSG blasted into Frank Sinatra's New York, New York. And the crowd of 19,812 launched into a Friday night sing along in Manhattan. 

It started a party that led to Obi Toppin and Jalen Brunson dunking a minute apart from each other, Josh Hart adding his flare to the blowout and Derrick Rose receiving a standing ovation from the New York faithful when he entered for the game's final minutes. 

The Knicks crushed the Cavs, 99-79, to take a 2-1 series lead, with game four coming on Sunday at MSG at 1 p.m. ET. 

The 79 points by Cleveland marked the lowest point total by any team in the NBA this season. 

"You saw it, they got shook up," Mitchell Robinson said when describing Cleveland following the win. 

Friday night was a Tom Thibodeau special, in which the Knicks grinded the Cavaliers down from the jump and methodically wore them out with in-your-face, New York style defense. 

"I thought we had great energy and connectivity," Thibodeau said following the win.

The Knicks gave Darius Garland his worst nightmare, responding from a 32-point performance and holding him to 10 points on 4-for-21 from the floor. Jalen Brunson was brilliant defensively on Garland while leading the way in the scoring column for the Knicks with 21. 

But for New York, Friday's response from a 107-90 game two blowout loss in Cleveland was powered by RJ Barrett. Entering the night shooting 6-for-25 on the series, the No. 3 overall draft pick in 2019 landed the opening punches on the Cavs and was steady throughout a dominant performance. He finished with 19 points on 8-of-12 from the floor, charging the Knicks to 28 points off 21 Cleveland turnovers. 

"RJ is the type of person who always bounces back," Brunson said. "He never gets too high or too low. You can never tell with his demeanor, and that's what makes him so good." 

The turning point? After Isaac Okoro hit one of only seven Cavs 3s — out of 33 attempts — to give Cleveland a 24-23 lead with 8:59 remaining in the first half, the Knicks started turning their stops into scores. New York rolled out a 15-3 run in which Brunson assisted or scored on five of the seven buckets, eventually turning a one-point game into a 45-32 lead at the break. 

Cleveland would reach single-digits at 64-55 with 2:18 left in the third quarter, but Hart, Quickley and Brunson drilled three straight buckets to close the period on an 8-0 run and remove any inkling of doubt that remained on where this game was heading. 

"There are things that contributed to that (79-point performance) but at the end of the day we missed shots," said Donovan Mitchell, who totaled 22 points, seven rebounds and five assists in the loss. "We've got to trust in ourselves. We've got to do whatever it takes to get this back to Cleveland at 2-2." 

Beyond what the Knicks were doing on the floor, an inexperienced Cavs team that struggled on the road this year was overwhelmed by the boisterous crowd. An 8:30 start time meant it wasn't a late arrival from the New Yorkers, and there was more than enough time for them to stock up at local establishments ahead of time. 

"This is The Garden, man," Barrett said with a smile. "That was so fun to play in. You grow up thinking about moments like these. I can't wait for us to be back here on Sunday."

If the Knicks could get that one in Manhattan, their fanbase will provide an even different roar level, because New York would inch to just a win away from only the franchise's second playoff series victory in the last 23 years.

— John Fanta

Nuggets 120, Timberwolves 111: Nuggets go up 3-0

Nikola Jokic had his seventh career triple-double in the playoffs with 20 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists for the Denver Nuggets, who fended off the Minnesota Timberwolves 120-111 to take a 3-0 lead in the first-round NBA playoff series Friday night.

Michael Porter Jr. had 25 points and nine rebounds and Jamal Murray added 18 points and nine assists as Denver withstood another dashing performance by Minnesota's Anthony Edwards to send a loud crowd of white-shirt-wearing fans home from another frustrating postseason loss.

Game 4 is here Sunday night.

Edwards scored 36 points to raise his series total to 95, Karl-Anthony Towns had 27 points after totaling only 21 points over the first two games and Rudy Gobert had 18 points and 10 rebounds for the Wolves, but a defensive lapse here and a rushed 3-pointer there was enough to seal their fate against a well-rounded Nuggets team that's finally healthy enough for a run at the NBA finals.

Bruce Brown had 12 points to lead Denver's 29-10 edge in bench points, and the Nuggets shot a hard-to-beat 57% from the field.

With the Nuggets holding their first 2-0 lead in nine playoff series under Mike Malone, their message from the coach was to keep the throttle on full and not give the underdog Wolves extra confidence.

The Western Conference's top team complied by shooting like its seeding depended on it and outjumping the Wolves for just about every long rebound. The Nuggets had two 9-0 runs in the first half and could hardly do anything wrong, starting the second quarter by making 12 of their first 16 shots and building a 13-point lead.

Then Edwards, who had 41 points in Game 2 for the franchise playoffs record, single-handedly brought the Wolves back with the kind of starburst only players like him are capable of.

After a lazy pass by Towns was picked off by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Edwards hustled for the block and quickly converted a Euro-step layup on the other end. The Wolves kept up the momentum and cut the lead to 61-55 right before halftime. They were still within six points at the end of the third quarter.

The Wolves won their play-in game here a week ago by going big on the backs of Towns and Gobert, the unlikely pairing they created when former Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly bolted for the same job in Minnesota and swung a blockbuster trade for Gobert.

The Wolves attacked the basket better than they did in the first two games, and Towns drew Jokic's fourth foul with 5:51 left in the third quarter, but the 7-foot Serb is just too skilled — and too much of a load — to get beat that way.

The two-time reigning NBA MVP led the league with 29 triple-doubles during the regular season.

— The Associated Press

Friday night was a showcase of what Thibodeau has built. It wasn't pretty, but that's not who the Knicks have ever been when they've had success on the postseason stage. They made the Cavs uncomfortable all night, and set MSG on fire in the process.

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, "Rebound," on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds." He also has a daily podcast, "On The Ball with Ric Bucher." Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.


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