When the Brooklyn Nets head to Philips Arena on Sunday to take on the Atlanta Hawks, they’ll be looking to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds in upsetting the NBA’s top regular-season Eastern Conference team. Not only did the Hawks sweep the season series between the two clubs by winning all four contests, they also finished with 60 wins, a full 22 games in front of Brooklyn. If not for the fact that the bottom half of the playoff teams in the East boast below .500 records and the fact the Nets played four games above that mark following the All-Star break, Brook Lopez and company would likely be on the outside looking in.
Now that they’re in the show, Brooklyn faces a generally undersized but speedy and smooth-shooting Hawks team that’s likely to make quick work of them in Round 1. A comparison between the two teams reveals differences in consistency and style of play that’ll likely lead to Brooklyn’s downfall.
How Atlanta Got Here
Coming into this season, most people expected the Hawks to be a playoff team, but one would be hard-pressed to find anybody that chose them to finish with the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The team managed to do just that on the strength of point guard Jeff Teague playing at an All-Star level most of the season, Al Horford having a healthy season and Kyle Korver having a remarkably accurate season. (Korver nailed a shade under 50 percent of his three-point attempts this season and had one of the best seasons a three-point shooter has ever put together.) While it remains to be seen as to whether or not the Hawks can maintain their dominance in the postseason, they’re definitely a force to be reckoned with.
Atlanta’s Key Player
Atlanta’s key player in this series is Jeff Teague. He may be a bit smaller than Deron Williams, but Teague has got quickness, a solid shooting touch and a willingness to draw contact around the basket in order to get teammates involved and make things happen. Those strengths will combine to allow Teague to rise to the occasion and once again remind the rest of the NBA that Williams isn’t what he used to be.
Forward Paul Millsap missed some time down the stretch with a shoulder injury, but he did manage to play in the team’s last game of the season. Despite the fact that he failed to score in double digits in the month of April, Millsap’s nearly 17 points per game average is going to be a huge source of production in the paint for the Hawks, helping his teammates steer clear of Brook Lopez.
How Brooklyn Got Here
In the first half of the season, the Nets along with everybody else in the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division seemed so far out of the playoff picture it’s as if nobody was talking about them. But the second half proved to be a different story. Brook Lopez displayed his dominance inside late in the season, and Thaddeus Young offered solid production after coming over from Minnesota in the Kevin Garnett trade. Teammates Deron Williams and Joe Johnson haven’t been nearly as good this year as they have been in the past, but the team held it all together long enough to squeak into the playoffs.
Brooklyn’s X Factor
Bojan Bogdanovic only put up nine points per game on the season for the Nets, but in the team’s final nine games, with every game being a must win, he brought that scoring average up to 14.4 points per contest and earned Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month honors. It was also obvious down the stretch that guard Joe Johnson wasn’t playing well at all. Although Brook Lopez can and will be counted on heavily on the offensive side of the ball, somebody will have to step up for the Nets and give them secondary scoring, especially if Johnson continues to struggle. Bogdanovic will be that guy.
Season Series Outcome: Atlanta 4-0
While the Nets did play the Haws tough in the final meeting between the two clubs earlier this month, the rest of the season series was heavily slanted in the Hawks’ favor. Keeping in mind that Atlanta’s playoff spot has been locked up for a long time, and Brooklyn was still fighting for its eighth seed a week ago, it’s hard to use last week’s game as a barometer for a season series that was totally dominated by Atlanta.
Brooklyn is a team stuck in between. Last season it was clear the team wasn’t built for a title after all, and this season, the remnants of last season’s team seem to be on the verge of turning over. While the likes of Lopez, Williams and Johnson will certainly have their moments, the Hawks will simply prove too much for the Nets to overcome and take the series handily.
With the exception of a desperation victory with their backs against the wall, the Nets should fold relatively quickly and send the Hawks to Round 2.
Hawks in 5.