The upcoming series between the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks is shaping up to be an absolute barn burner, with anticipation already building for potentially the most competitive first-round series. The Hawks came in first in the Southeast division, with a record of 41-31, finishing a game ahead of the defending conference champions, the Miami Heat.

The path to this point was absolutely fascinating for the Hawks, who fired head coach Lloyd Pierce early in the season, and replaced him with Nate McMillian. McMillian turned out to be the perfect replacement, as the Hawks went 27-11 with him as head coach. If we extend this winning percentage over an entire season, the Hawks would have won over 50 games and been the one seed in the east, a remarkable feat. Do not take this team lightly; they are only the fifth seed because of a rough patch to start the year.

Atlanta is led by star point guard Trae Young, who averaged 25.3 points and 9.4 assists per game. He’s as good of a scorer as he is a distributor, and that should come in handy going into his first postseason. Flanking the star guard are wings Bogdan Bogdanovic and Deandre Hunter. Bogdanovic is a crafty offensive player, as well as a good shooter, with a red hot 43% three-point percentage. He’s the third-leading scorer on the team, averaging 16.4 points per game. Hunter is a three-and-d player, more equipped to spot up shoot and defend the other team’s best perimeter player. He’ll be thrown at Julius Randle a lot in this series. The big men in the Hawks’ starting lineup are John Collins and Clint Capela. Both are excellent roll men for Young, and spearhead a Hawks team that was fifth in rebounds per game. The team’s sixth man is one of the best of all time, scoring guard Lou Williams.

For the Knicks, they finished third in the Atlantic division, but it was their best season in almost a decade, with a record of 41-31. Their coach, Tom Thibodeau, is experienced, having led multiple teams to the playoffs over the course of his career. He’ll garner Coach of the Year praise undoubtedly, and for good reason. The Knicks are certainly not the most talented roster in the league, but the team’s all-around grit, high-level defense and determination have gotten them this far.

New York is led by star forward and Most Improved player of the Year candidate Julius Randle, who’s averaging 24 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists per game. The Knicks go as Randle goes, and they’ll need to really get him going if they want postseason success. His ability to rebound against Capela and Collins will be crucial. Plus, he’s the offensive center piece for the Knicks. The Hawks will throw everything they have at him. Expect big nights out of Randle as this series progresses.

His supporting cast will matter too, and the back court of Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock have an important job. For Payton, secondary playmaking is vital. Randle will receive double teams, and when the ball is swung to Payton, he’s going to need to be aggressive and either score or set up a teammate. Think of a reverse situation of Draymond Green and Stephen Curry. What makes Green so valuable is his ability to make a play when Curry is doubled. Payton will need to do this for Randle. He will also need to harass Young on the other side of the ball. Payton’s role is vital to a Knicks win. Bullock on the other hand, needs to make his threes to provide floor spacing. RJ Barrett is another starter for the Knicks, at the small forward position. His development over the course of his sophomore season has been nice, and he’s the second leading scorer on a team that isn’t that good at scoring. He’s going to need to take advantage of a Hawks team that employs three below-average defenders as starters, and make them pay. Center Nerlens Noel must provide rim protection and help the Knicks stifle the Hawks’ glass attack as well. Noel against Capela will be quite the matchup to watch. For the Knicks bench, veteran Derrick Rose is the sixth man and has to add scoring punch if the Knicks want to advance.

This very well could be the most competitive matchup in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. Game 1 is at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Match 23.

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