Close to 18 months ago, the Atlanta Hawks ousted the New York Knicks in five games in the 2021 Eastern Conference first round. The series turned out to be a mere blip in the vast history of the NBA, but one interesting by-product of that match-up was Hawks guard Trae Young becoming the latest antagonist in the colorful history of Madison Square Garden.
Since the onset of that series, Young has become the main target of jeers from Knicks fans and he is reveling in the consistent attention that they give him. Young and his new backcourt partner Dejounte Murray seemed eager to silence New York’s raucous crowd in their first visit to the Garden this season last November.
Atlanta came away with a 112-99 win where Young hit only seven-of-22 shots, yet he made up for it with six rebounds, seven assists, a steal, and only one turnover. Murray was the star of the show for the Hawks that evening though as he tallied 36 points, four rebounds, nine assists, five steals, and a block.
Fast forward to the first week of December and Atlanta was back in New York for the second and final time this regular season. Young and the Hawks were raring to take a 2-0 lead in their season series with the Knicks to help them get past the recent turbulence within their organization. However, things took a turn for the worse when Murray exited the contest with an ankle injury less than four minutes into the game.
New York pounced on the opportunity and closed the opening quarter with a 31-20 lead before making a statement with a 113-89 win. The Knicks improved to 12-13 on the season, good for ninth place in the tight Eastern Conference race, while Atlanta slid to 13-12 which puts them fifth in the standings where they are only a game ahead of their rivals.
Star forward Julius Randle led the way for New York with a practically flawless evening where he had 34 points on 19 field goal attempts, six threes, eight-of-eight free throw shooting, 16 rebounds, five assists, one steal, and, surprisingly, no turnovers.
However, the biggest difference maker for the Knicks was arguably their new starting shooting guard Quentin Grimes. He has started the last nine games for New York after Cam Reddish was sidelined for three games with a groin injury and apparently did enough to convince head coach Tom Thibodeau to let him keep the job. Meanwhile, Reddish has now fallen completely out of the rotation following a brief stint in his return last week in their loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
On the other hand, Grimes, who was used sparingly to begin the season, has only gotten better with each starting nod. The 6’5 guard uses his size, athleticism, and quickness to defend the best perimeter player on opposing teams.
After playing only four minutes in their first meeting with the Hawks a month ago, he was tasked with covering Young from the opening tip in their rematch. He limited the two-time NBA All-Star to nine-of-20 field goal shooting, including no three-pointers on four attempts, four rebounds, six assists, and four turnovers.
Grimes also blocked two of Young’s lay-up attempts in the first half and he has now recorded at least a steal or block in nine of the 10 games that he has started for the Knicks this season.
Beyond his defense on Young, what made the 22-year-old’s performance versus Atlanta even more special was that, on the opposite end, he had his best offensive showing in this campaign so far.
The 25th overall pick of last year’s NBA Draft scored a season-high 23 points on eight-of-11 field goals and five-of-seven three-pointers. He made both of his free throws, collected four rebounds, handed out two assists, and had the two aforementioned blocks on Young as well.
The strong shooting was the most promising aspect of his performance as he has not yet been able to replicate his 38.1% three-point shooting from his rookie season. He is currently at 33.3% from distance this season and is slightly worse in his 10 games as a starter with a 32.5% clip. New York needs Grimes to rediscover his perimeter touch as weak side shooters play a key role in making their penetration-heavy offense function normally.
Grimes has also shown a knack for coming up with loose balls and making the right passes which are a testament to his basketball IQ.
The Knicks notoriously refused to give up Grimes in a potential package to acquire three-time NBA All-Star Donovan Mitchell during the offseason and the public is now beginning to see why. While Grimes still has a long way to go to reach the heights that Mitchell has reached in his six-year career, the foundation for success is clearly there.
It is clear that Grimes has the physique, talent, and smarts to flourish in the NBA and the onus is now on New York to ensure that he reaches his full potential. More and more promising young pieces seem to be falling into place for the Knicks and if–this is a big IF–they can finally stop getting in their own way, the future is bright for this once proud franchise.