NBA Playoffs Preview: Hawks vs. Nets
Much to the chagrin of the NBA community, the Brooklyn Nets will participate in the 2015 playoffs despite finishing six games under .500.
To make matters worse, they sneaked into the 8 seed on the very last day of the regular season, thanks to an Indiana Pacers loss
The Atlanta Hawks, on the other hand, have been one of the most pleasant surprises in professional basketball over the last six months. The Hawks franchise was much maligned after the whole Danny Ferry fiasco from last summer that left the leadership of the front office fractured. But thanks to head coach Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks have featured some Spurs-like stability in their basketball operations, which has allowed this team to flourish on the court.
Let us scratch the surface with some statistics that might help us shed some light on the juxtaposition of these two franchises.
Atlanta Hawks (1)
Championship Odds: 11.7%
Brooklyn Nets (8)
Championship Odds: 0.2%
Regular Season Series - Hawks 4, Nets 0
The Hawks swept the season series four games to zero, and that doesn't even begin to tell the disparity between these two teams. Atlanta won those four contests by an average margin of victory of 17.2 points per game. Mind you, the Hawks had all of the extra incentive in the world to play the Nets as hard as possible, seeing as how these two teams have a first-round pick swap leftover from the Joe Johnson trade in 2012. That pick would have been much more valuable as the 12th pick in the lottery than the 15th pick with no chance of winning the number one overall pick.
The most embarrassing of those losses came on April 4th, when the Hawks beat the Nets 131-99. Atlanta used their pace and space scheme to whip the ball around the court like a beautifully coordinated ballet, finishing with more assists (40) than the Nets had made field goals (39). That game will have an impact on this series but not because of the final score.
In that game Hawks All-Star Paul Millsap inured his shoulder and had to miss five games down the stretch of the regular season before finally playing in the Hawks' season finale against Chicago, where he seemed a little rusty shooting 2 of 9 from the field. If Millsap cannot be the dominating stretch power forward that the Hawks have grown accustom to, then it really highlights the size disadvantage that the Hawks will already have against the Nets.
Just four days after that game, the Hawks and Nets met in Brooklyn, and this time it was a highly contested battle that saw the Hawks edge out the Nets 114-111. There were very unique circumstances surrounding this game considering the fact that the Hawks were already without Millsap due to injury. They were also without key reserves Pero Antic and Thabo Sefolosha, who were arrested outside of a New York City night club the previous night. That unfortunate situation could end up being extremely costly for the Hawks because Sefolosha was lost for the season after injuring his ankle in the incident.
Sefolosha was one of the main defenders that the Hawks have used to defend Joe Johnson, who had an up and down regular season series against his former team with scoring splits of 12, 26, 4, and 21. Not having that extra body to bother a physical player such as Johnson could prove to be detrimental to the Hawks.
How the Hawks Can Win
The Hawks will be able to win by continuing their great pace and space scheme by spreading the Nets out at the three-point line and maintaining their great ball movement. Controlling the three point line will be an important factor for the Hawks since they shot 41.4 percent from behind the arc in the series season against the Nets, while only allowing 31.9 percent shooting on threes to the Nets. The Hawks are 26-7 on the season when shooting more than 40 percent from three, so it would definitely behoove them to continue letting it fly.
Ball movement is almost just as critical to victory over the Nets as three point shooting. The Hawks averaged 2.63 assists to turnovers against the Nets on the season, the highest such ratio amongst NBA opponents. The Hawks were second in the entire Association at assist to turnover ratio behind the Los Angeles Clippers, and they have a 16-2 record when they record more than 30 assists in a game.
Hawks Player to Watch - DeMarre CarrollCarroll will be one of the most important players for the Hawks because he will bear the majority of the responsibility in defending the Nets' second leading scorer, Joe Johnson at 14.2 points per game. At 6"8', Carroll has the size to match up physically with Johnson, who can be a terror on the block, posting up smaller guards.
The fifth-year pro is in the midst of his breakout NBA season, and he averaged a career high in points per game (12.6) and secured a career-best PER (15.9). DeMarre averaged 17.2 points per game against the Nets this season, which is nearly five points higher than his season average. Carroll's roll as a secondary scorer and a primary defender will be integral to the Hawks' gameplan.
How the Nets Can Win
The Nets can win this series by using their size advantage to outperform the Hawks on the offensive and defensive glass. The Hawks rank dead last in offensive rebounds for the season at just 8.7 per game. They allow 11.6 offensive rebounds per game to opponents. The Nets need to increase their season average of 10.3 offensive rebounds per game if they want to have a chance at limiting Hawks' possessions while simultaneously increasing their own opportunities to score. In the closest regular season matchup between these two teams -- on April 8th -- the Hawks may have barely edged out a win 114-111, but the Nets did a good job of controlling the glass, outrebounding Atlanta 47-40.
It will be very critical for the Nets to keep their leading scorer, Brook Lopez, involved in the offense because he has a marked size advantage over the Hawks' big men.
The seven-footer does not have the conventional back to the basket game of the bruising big men of the 90's, but what he does have is an incredibly soft touch in the mid-range, shooting 45.8 percent from the field on shots 10 to 14 feet away from the basket. Lopez is the perfect complement to the slashing Thaddeus Young, who has given the Nets a much needed boost in athleticism since coming over in a trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves on deadline day. Young has averaged 13.8 points per game as a Net, and more importantly, he has actually helped with their floor spacing by being a more than proficient three point shooter, hitting 38 percent of his shots from deep in a Nets uniform.
Nets Player to Watch - Deron Williams
Deron Williams has not been the player that the Nets were expecting when they traded for him from the Utah Jazz in the middle of the 2010-11 season, but Williams has at least has elevated his level of play in the playoffs as a Net. In 2013 D-Will averaged 20.6 points per game in the playoffs, up from 18.9 during the regular season. In 2014, that average was 14.5 in the playoffs, up just a bit from 14.3 during the regular season.
Williams is far removed from being the superstar player that he once was, but this will be a good showcase series for him to prove the doubters that he does have a little left in the tank.
This series should be a blowout by all accounts, but this is exactly why they play the games. If the Nets can focus on driving the Hawks off of their sweet spots behind the arc and dominate the rebound margin, then the Nets will give themselves a puncher's chance.
A lot of this series might ultimately depend on how healthy Paul Millsap will be. He was an All-Star for a reason, and if his game is not the same, the Hawks might find themselves in trouble early on. Still, the Nets aren't the team to put fear in the hearts of any opponents at this time.
According to our algorithms: Hawks are 80.45% favorites.
My final prediction: Hawks in six.