This was not supposed to happen. The Atlanta Hawks effortlessly picked apart opponents all season long, playing a beautiful, unselfish brand of basketball on their way to a number one seed and a franchise-record 60 wins. Coach Mike Budenholzer took home a well-earned trophy as the NBA’s Coach of the Year. The Hawks sent four players to the All-Star Game at midseason, despite having no brand-name superstar. While the Golden State Warriors were dismantling the Western Conference, the Atlanta Hawks were doing the same thing, albeit with considerably less fanfare, in the East.
The Brooklyn Nets, meanwhile, were a playoff afterthought. They stumbled through the season like Atlanta’s hideous inverse dopplegänger, a team full of underachieving stars who seemed to revel in playing ugly, selfish, inefficient ball. Deron Williams continued to look like one of the worst free agent signings in NBA history. Brook Lopez failed to progress. Even the typically reliable Joe Johnson, at age 33, looked as if father time had finally caught up to him. The bizarro-Hawks needed an uncharacteristically strong finish just to make the playoffs, reeling off nine wins in their final 13 contests against a mixture of playoff teams and bottom-feeders. And yet, the Hawks find themselves deadlocked with the lowly Nets after the first four games of their first-round series. So, how did this happen?
It’s No Fluke
Through four games, the Atlanta Hawks have scored 393 points. The Nets have scored 394. In a series that many expected to be an easy sweep, the Nets have quite literally played the Hawks to a draw. After averaging 102.5 points per game during the regular season, the Hawks have mustered just 98.3 in the playoffs. The Nets, meanwhile, have averaged 98.5 points per game in the tournament. Granted, that doesn’t sound particularly impressive, but it’s a half-point improvement on their dismal regular season average. The Nets have done well to challenge the Hawks’ shooters and force bad shots as well, limiting Atlanta to just 41.5 percent from the field and 33.1 percent from three compared to 46.6 and 38.0 percent during the season.
There’s No Point in Guarding the Point
Speaking of the Nets’ defense, a key component of their efforts on that end of the court is the way in which Coach Lionel Hollins has attacked Atlanta’s point guards. Or, more accurately, not attacked them. All-star point guard Jeff Teague was the proverbial straw that stirred the Hawks’ drink all season long, but he struggled mightily through the first three games thanks to Hollins’ decision to give Teague space. By backing their defenders off, the Nets have given both Teague and backup Dennis Schröder a look with which they aren’t familiar. As a result, the aggressive, penetrating style the young guards have employed all season has been disrupted. Teague looks tentative and unsure, not confident enough in his ability to knock down outside shots but not fully committed to his usual attacking mindset.
The Ghost of Deron Williams Past
Once upon a time, in the days of yore, some of the smartest basketball minds in the land proclaimed Deron Williams the greatest point guard in the NBA. These days, Williams is more likely to be proclaimed the greatest waste of money in league history. And yet, for one glorious night, the ghost of Deron Williams rose to remind all onlookers that “Chris Paul or Deron Williams?” really was once a legitimate question. After playing three well-rounded but forgettable games, Deron Williams turned back the clock for game four and got busy on the Hawks to the tune of 35 points and seven assists in a thrilling overtime win. D-Will started the game hot, scoring 11 points on a number of wide-open shots after the Hawks seemingly scrapped the idea of guarding him altogether. But it was the fourth quarter where Williams really shined, torching Atlanta to the tune of 16 points and assisting on another three baskets.
The Atlanta Hawks are still favored to win this series, and the benefit of home-court advantage will certainly help. It’s also worth noting that both Paul Millsap and Al Horford are playing through injuries, and neither is operating at full capacity. With improving health and some smart adjustments by the NBA’s Coach of the Year, they may even regain the form that led them to the number one seed in the East. But the Hawks have no shortage of reasons to be concerned, and they’ll need to right the ship quickly if they hope to avoid a rather ignominious end to a splendid season.