Knicks’ quiet trade deadline could be their playoff undoing

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The March 25 trade deadline came, passed and the Knicks subtracted instead of added.

The Knicks traded combo guard Austin Rivers. They gave up on 2019 second-round pick Ignas Brazdeikis. They released the players coming back in the deal, opening two roster spots.

According to a source, Tom Thibodeau had hoped for an upgrade, but none ever came. Management still viewed the 2020-21 season as a stepping stone with eyes on a potential $60 million in summer cap space.

The source said Thibodeau was in love with Toronto two-way shooting guard Norman Powell, who was traded to Portland and is excelling in the playoffs vs. Denver.

One of the Knicks’ two open roster spots went to third-string center Norvel Pelle, who has not played a minute in the first-round series against Atlanta.

The other spot was taken by the signing of Argentinian combo guard Luca Vildoza, who was in New York rather than Atlanta this weekend. Vildoza tweeted a photo of himself, lounging and watching the Hawks’ Game 4 demolition.

Though Vildoza is out of quarantine since arriving from Spain 10 days ago, Thibodeau views Vildoza as a next-season project and COVID-19 protocols still make it tricky.

Meanwhile, next season is almost upon the Knicks, who are back Wednesday for Game 5 at the Garden trying to extend their magical season that saw them post a 41-31 record.

After being routed in the two games in Atlanta, they trail 3-1 in the series. No Knicks team in 13 tries has ever recovered from that deficit, including the last Knicks playoff team in 2012-13 against Indiana, when they eventually lost in six.

The Knicks would love a return trip to Atlanta for a Game 6 as they will have their fantastically frenzied crowd of 16,000-plus after melting in the State Farm Arena din.

“(The crowd) gave us a boost the first two games, but we’ve got to give them a reason to cheer and give us a boost,” Knicks center Taj Gibson said. “They’ve been the sixth man for us, but it’s up to us to make the corrections, come with the right kind of energy.

“They’re a really talented team. They’ve been playing extremely well the last couple games. It’s up to us to do what we have to do and bring this thing back to Atlanta.”

The Knicks’ role players have struggled massively to score and take the immense burden off their leader Julius Randle, who showed improvement in Game 4 (23 points, seven assists, 10 rebounds), but is still shooting 27 percent in his first playoff appearance.

The Knicks are shooting just 32 percent from 3-point land after being such a surprise during the regular season.

Thibodeau removed point guard Elfrid Payton from the starting lineup and didn’t play him at all in the two blowout defeats.

With the Knicks 0-2 in the series with Derrick Rose as the starter and no longer leader of the bench brigade, they could indeed use a savvy veteran guard such as Rivers. He’s a key contributor for the Nuggets, but he had a falling out with Thibodeau over being yanked from the rotation.

Knicks Hawks NBA playoffs 2021 Tom Thibodeau
Knicks president Leon Rose; head coach Tom Thibodeau
Corey Sipkin (2)

Thibodeau said Sunday “everything is on the table” for Game 5. Figure Frank Ntilikina will be a consideration to hound the explosively spectacular point guard Trae Young, who’s averaging 27.5 points and 10 assists in four games.

Those surprised by Atlanta’s playoff domination after the Knicks swept them 3-0 in the regular season should have seen some of this coming. Jeff Van Gundy, Thibodeau’s closest friend, sure did.

The Hawks, who added bench stud Lou Williams at the deadline, were never at full strength in any of the games like now.

Before the series, Van Gundy noted, “Atlanta has more talent. The Knicks play their best players a lot of minutes. Their guys play. The Knicks don’t take nights off. In the playoffs, that all goes away. Everybody is locked in and everybody plays. There’s no load management. It will be interesting to see if the Knicks have enough in a playoff scenario to hold up.”

They haven’t. Not yet.

De’Andre Hunter, the Hawks’ 2019 lottery pick whom brass loved so much they moved up to No. 4 after the Knicks took RJ Barrett, missed two of the three regular-season Knicks contests. He’s been chief hound in making life miserable for Randle.

Danilo Gallinari, the Knicks’ 2008 lottery pick who has lit them up for 33 points in the two wins in Atlanta, also missed two of the three regular-season contests.

Bogdan Bogdanovic, Atlanta’s 3-point specialist, missed one of the three games.

And Young left the April loss with an ankle injury with the Hawks up eight late in the third quarter.

Ironically, the Knicks made free-agent offers to Gallinari and Bogdanovic last November — fearful of their 3-point shooting.

At full strength, the Hawks look too loaded. However, Thibodeau’s Knicks should go down fighting — maybe literally after the kerfuffles in the final minutes of Game 4.

“I think you look at the group, this is a lot of [players’] first time playing in the playoffs,” Gibson said. “You’ve got to make adjustments, just learning on the curve. (Randle) is just learning on a curve. I think everybody on our team is just learning on a curve.”

The learning could end Wednesday.

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