The Atlanta Hawks/Brooklyn Nets Eastern Conference first round series started with a fittingly ugly opening tip that bounced out of bounds.
48 minutes of play later, and after leading the entire way, the Hawks held on to win 99-92. But they were never in real danger.
For some reason, Atlanta fans loudly booed Joe Johnson whenever he had the ball, starting with the opening possession and never letting up. Johnson hit his first shot, but the aging guard was terrible shooting afterward. He made five of his next 16. And without all of their best players on top form, the Nets have no chance in this series.
In a preview of the series, BBALLBREAKDOWN’s Joshua Riddell gave a difficult blueprint that Brooklyn had to follow in order to pull off the upset. The first key he listed for the Nets was simply to shoot better; Brooklyn struggles to make threes as a rule, but Atlanta tends to allow a lot of them. Unfortunately, Brooklyn shot a brutal five of 20 from distance in game one – Deron Williams connected on two of his four, but Johnson missed all six of his attempts. The Nets were able to find Johnson in the corners via reasonably good (in relative terms) ball movement in the manner Joshua described, but, perhaps fazed by the crowd, Johnson couldn’t knock any of the open looks down. Most of the looks Johnson and the team attempted from outside were at least partly contested, and more ball movement (skip passes, reverses, some more driving and kicking) could further open up this sorely needed part of the game.
The Nets have no way of slowing down Atlanta’s pick-and-roll attacks. Jeff Teague is a blossoming star as a ball handler in those plays, and Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young are utterly overmatched by Al Horford and Paul Millsap. In game one, though, Millsap shot just two of 11 and was held to only six points and seven boards. One of Joshua’s keys for Brooklyn was to slow down Atlanta’s passing oriented offense, and the Nets succeeded here, holding Atlanta to a 15.6 assist ratio, per NBA.com, compared to averages of over 23 against Brooklyn this season and 19.7 overall. But the Hawks have other ways to score, and Earl Clark in particular struggled defensively. The Hawks were also penalised by bigs on the perimeter – the normally low scoring Pero Antic was productive on the perimeter, drawing a three shot foul and drained a three pointer in the opening quarter. By the start of the second quarter, Atlanta was already up 32-20 and shooting 50% from the field, a margin the Nets never significantly threatened.
Brook Lopez was productive offensively, continuing his run of stellar play leading into potential free agency. He was effective on the glass too, with nine rebounds in the first half and 14 (six offensive) in his 36 minutes. However, as Joshua pointed out in his second key, Brooklyn needs to feed their talented center to score enough in this series. Lopez only got seven shots, and he made six of them. The Nets have to get him the ball more in game two, and that is easier said than done. Despite a size advantage against the Hawks’ paint defenders, Atlanta’s traps made any pick-and-roll feeds difficult, as every passing lane had a hand in it, and their constant help snuffed out much room in the paint for post-up possessions. Lopez’s points came mostly through sheer opportunity rather than any carved opening, in no small part due to his own work on the glass. As difficult as it will be to do, Brooklyn has to find ways to get their best offensive player a consistent role in the half court offense to stand a chance, and in game one, they didn’t.
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Jarrett Jack did his best in game one to combat Paul Pierce’s notion that Brooklyn lacks leadership or toughness. Jack doesn’t offer much on defense, but he’s always excelled at bringing a scoring punch off the bench. He had six points and made his first three shots in a quarter that could have been even more disastrous for Brooklyn had he not, and finished with 13 points on eight shots in only 16 minutes. Still, the Hawks’ feisty guards forced him into a few turnovers that resulted in easy fast break buckets. And Jack’s propensity for mid-range shots (often contested and/or rushed) cannot be the answer to Brooklyn’s search for offensive weapons. By taking shots away from Lopez and giving them to Jack, the Hawks got what they wanted, even if Jack hit a few.
On the plus side, the Nets didn’t give up after going down big early. They fought back to cut the lead to 57-54 in the third quarter before Atlanta regained itself and pushed the score back to 72-56. Brooklyn executed well offensively for several minutes to open the second half, but the Hawks quickly drained some threes to eliminate the threat. The Nets only had two assists in the entire third quarter.
Lionels Hollins oddly acknowledged before the series that the Nets were completely overmatched by Atlanta and had no advantages against them. It was weird to hear a coach speak that bluntly about his own team, but he wasn’t wrong. Of course, one of the biggest edges for the Hawks is coaching. Brooklyn is far less talented than most playoff teams, yet they play a style that heavily features isolations, and is incredibly starved of ball and man movement. This season long concern proved true once more, as the Nets had only 18 assists and committed 17 turnovers. On the other hand, Atlanta led the NBA in percentage of assisted baskets and runs its frenetic pace and space system that almost exclusively hunts open threes and layups. Their offense is too varied to do much about.
If Brooklyn can get Brook Lopez twice as many shots, make a couple more threes, and continue hindering Atlanta’s pace, they have a chance to win some games in this series. In game one, Lopez barely touched the ball and the Nets were awful from long range, yet they were within reach until the buzzer (albeit in part due to a bit of a Hawks collapse). With Al Horford now questionable for game two after dislocating his pinky early in the fourth quarter (he did return), Brooklyn has an opportunity to make some noise.
Lastly, as BBALLBREAKDOWN’s Specialist of the Year and Co-Glue Man of the Year (with teammate DeMarre Carroll!), Kyle Korver warrants his own section in any Atlanta Hawks game recap:
- Swished contested three to open the scoring for Atlanta
- Swished deep three to give Hawks 35-20 lead to open second quarter
- Missed a free throw in the second quarter, but I’m assuming my TNT feed was briefly hacked
- Took a charge on Thaddeus Young
- Passed up a three for a beautifully unselfish look inside for an open layup on a fast break
- Made a three to put Atlanta back up 11 after Brooklyn cut it to three a few minutes earlier
- Great block/steal on a fourth quarter fast break opportunity for Brooklyn
- Hit a three off a triple threat immediately upon returning to the game with three minutes left, putting Atlanta up eight again
- Hawks +11 with Korver on court. -4 off court
- 37 minutes (team high), 21 points (game high), 5/11 on three pointers (game highs), seven rebounds, three assists, two steals, one block
He’s a subplot by himself.
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