The Brooklyn Nets qualified for the postseason on the season’s final day, taking care of business against the Orlando Magic as well as getting some help from the Memphis Grizzlies, who eliminated the Indiana Pacers. Earning the eighth seed, the Nets will face off in a best-of-seven series against the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks. Though the Hawks hold the East’s best record, there’s still question marks and this will by no means be an easy series.
How They Got Here:
The Nets were stuck in a tough position this season. They couldn’t tank for a draft pick, as the Atlanta Hawks actually hold the right to the Nets first-round selection. They couldn’t unload their overpaid veterans, simply because the returns were not enough and some players didn’t even have suitors.
All the Nets could do is play out the season, with a squad capable of beating anyone on a given night, but also capable of collapsing at inconvenient times.
More than halfway through the season, the Nets sat only a few games back of the East’s final playoff spot but didn’t look like they would make the leap to extend their season. Then, after the trade deadline yielded Thaddeus Young, the Nets started to come together a little more. The Nets rattled off six straight wins and won eight of nine at the tail end of March into April. They caught fire at just the right time for a late season playoff push.
They nearly blew their chance, however, dropping three of their last five. Luckily, the Nets recent win streak provided them a little cushion, and the Pacers lost their final game to ultimately push Brooklyn into the postseason.
The Atlanta Hawks faced no such problems qualifying for the NBA playoffs. Sure, they got off to a bumpy 5-5 start, but then started to rattle off wins left and right, including an NBA season-high 19 game win streak in early 2015.
Not making any major offseason moves, one of the notable ones brought in Thabo Sefolosha, the Hawks weren’t expected to be as dominant as they’ve been this year. But they took the league by storm, rattling off the aforementioned 19 game win streak, sending four players to the All-Star game, and having their entire starting line-up named Eastern Conference Players of the Month in their undefeated January slate.
The Hawks soared to their best record on March 6, defeating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers 106-97 in a potential Eastern Conference Finals preview. They followed up with a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. On paper, this is as big a flip-flop as a team can experience. However, the Hawks rested three starters, a trend that would continue throughout the NBA’s final weeks.
Clinching the East’s top seed a little early, and already having firm control of it most of the season, the Hawks have rested their starters on and off much of the last few weeks, dropping games to inferior teams but only because they weren’t playing at full strength.
One red flag could the Hawks 112-108 loss to the New York Knicks in their second to last game, with the majority of their team intact. This could be a wakeup call for a team that has been on cruise control since the All-Star break.
Also unsettling is reserve Thabo Sefolosha’s season-ending injury in a police incident at a New York City nightclub. The former Oklahoma City Thunder guard/forward averaged 5.3 points per game and 18.8 minutes a night for the Hawks. So while his absence isn’t crippling, it certainly hampers the Hawks bench and depth.
If the season series is any indication of how this playoff series will play out, it could be a quick one. The Hawks swept the Nets in the regular season, beating them all four times.
In the first game, the Hawks beat the Nets 98-75 in Brooklyn on December 5. The offense simply wasn’t going for the Nets, and the Hawks blew the game open with a 36-13 second quarter advantage. The Nets missed 50 shots in the game, going 30-for-80 from the field, good for a subpar 37.5% shooting. They also jacked up 18 three-pointers, connecting on only three of them.
The next game was much closer, and also held more weight for the Nets as they looked to start a playoff push. On January 28, in Atlanta, the Nets fell to the Hawks 113-102. Joe Johnson was among five Nets in double figures, leading the way with 26 points. Brook Lopez had a strong showing off the bench with 18 points and 7 rebounds.
But the Nets defense couldn’t stop the entire Hawks starting lineup from scoring in double digits, as well as a bench player, bringing their total to six. Paul Milsap led the way with an impressive double-double, 28 points and 15 rebounds. Kyle Korver also killed the Nets from deep, hitting five of eight three pointers.
The Nets better hope the season’s third meeting isn’t an indicator of this playoff series. A recent game on April 4, this was the first matchup with Thaddeus Young on the team and Kevin Garnett gone. The Nets were coming in off a six game win streak and a chance to put their playoff destiny in their own hands.
Instead, the Nets were destroyed 131-99 in Philips Arena. The Hawks scored 30 or more points each of the first three quarters, including 42 in the third to put the game far out of reach. The Hawks employed a balanced scoring attack, with six players in double figures, including 12 from the now injured Sefolosha. Joe Johnson had a completely pitiful -34 plus/minus rating on the court.
In the fourth and final game between the Nets and Hawks, the score was much tighter. On April 8 in the Barclays Center, the Nets even held a late fourth quarter lead. The Nets missed a layup in the final seconds, down by one, and trailed by three after the Hawks hit a couple free throws. Johnson’s contested three point prayer rattled in and out of the basket at the buzzer, a shot that would’ve sent the game to overtime.
Based on the season series, the Hawks already have an edge. Defeating a team four straight times not only proves the Hawks can consistently beat the Nets, but might also get in the minds of the Nets players with the intimidation factor.
Then again, the Nets swept the Miami Heat in the regular season last year, only to be dispatched in five games in the playoffs.
Projected Starting Lineups
- Point Guard: Jeff Teague (15.9 PPG, 7.0 APG, 1.7 SPG)
- Shooting Guard: Kyle Korver (12.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 49% 3PT)
- Small Forward: DeMarre Carol (12.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 49% FG)
- Power Forward: Paul Millsap ( 16.7 PPG and 7.8 RPG, 47% FG)
- Center: Al Horford (15.2 PPG, 7.2 RPG)
The Hawks starting unit is extremely efficient and works together to create consistent offense.
While Horford and Millsap are household names, the Hawks don’t have a true star, which has worked to their advantage. Instead of relying on the LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony’s of the world, the Hawks focus on creating a balanced, cohesive scoring attack.
Shooting guard Kyle Korver is absolutely deadly from three point range, and will definitely have to garner the Nets defensive attention. Korver stretches the floor, which may give Millsap and Horford more chances to thrive in the post.
Brook Lopez and Mason Plumlee are a solid counter to Horford at the center position, but Millsap may look to expose potential matchups with Thaddeus Young. While Millsap and Young both measure in at 6’8″, Millsap is more of a true power forward, while Young has looked to stretch the floor especially in his tenure in Brooklyn.
- Point Guard: Deron Williams (13.0 PPG, 6.3 APG)
- Shooting Guard: Markel Brown (4.6 PPG, 2.3 RPG)
- Small Forward: Joe Johnson (14.4 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 3.7 APG)
- Power Forward: Thaddeus Young (13.8 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 50% FG)
- Center: Brook Lopez (17.2 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 51% FG)
While the Hawks employ one of the NBA’s best-balanced attacks, the Nets are no slouch in the department, with four starters and one reserve scoring in double figures.
Though arguably snubbed for an All-Star spot, Brook Lopez may just be the best player on the court. Elevating his scoring average to 17.2 points per game by the season’s end, Lopez has been on fire in the Nets late playoff push, putting up multiple 30 point games and proving he’s capable of carrying the team. As the Nets longest-tenured player, who could potentially leave Brooklyn this summer, expect a huge effort from Lopez.
Rookie Markel Brown has been serviceable but not flashy at the shooting guard position. He likely won’t be asked to contribute much on offense, but rather use his athletic ability on defense. And this is a good matchup for him, as Korver isn’t exactly the most athletic player on the Hawks.
Thaddeus Young has been a spark since coming over from the Minnesota Timberwolves and could very well be the Nets X-Factor in the series. Young has been shooting a team-high 38% from three point land and stretches the floor at the power forward position. Young’s scoring could be a valuable asset for the Nets in these playoffs.
The starting five is rounded out by two veterans, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. Each capable of both scoring and facilitating, their play may just be the deciding factor in this series. There’s no way the Nets can win multiple games unless their highest paid players are producing at least at their regular season levels.
But with playoff experience under the belts, the Nets should expect even more from Williams and Johnson. They will need to lead the Nets both with leadership and offense.
Key Bench Players
- Point Guard: Dennis Schröder (10.0 PPG, 4.1 APG)
- Power Forward: Mike Scott (7.8 PPG, 2.9 RPG)
- Power Forward: Pero Antic (5.7 PPG, 3.0 RPG)
- Shooting Guard: Kent Bazemore (5.2 PPG, 43% FG)
The Hawks bench is solid, but nothing flashy. Point guard Dennis Schröder easily leads the way as the most impressive role player, second on the team in assists despite playing only 19 minutes a night. In this limited time, Schröder also manages to just graze double digit scoring, which is impressive.
Scott and Antic both provide solid relief for Horford and Millsap in the front court. Scott has been dealing with a back injury, and though he didn’t play in the regular season finale should be good to go in the playoffs.
The most gaping hole on the bench is the one left by Thabo Sefolosha. A key contributor on some deep playoff runs for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Sefolodha’s presence on the bench was a valuable one that also made the team much deeper.
Instead, his minutes will likely fall on the young Kent Bazemore. While the majority of this Hawks team has playoff experience, Bazemore has only gotten a very limited taste, playing less than 20 career postseason minutes.
- Point Guard: Jarrett Jack (12.0 PPG, 4.7 APG)
- Power Forward: Mason Plumlee (8.7 PPG, 6.2 RPG)
- Shooting Guard: Bojan Bogdanovic (9.0 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 45% FG)
- Small Forward: Earl Clark (2.7 PPG, 2.3 RPG)
For all the praise Schroder deserves as a superb backup point guard, Jarrett Jack deserves even more. Scoring and assisting at a higher rate than Schroder, Jack has been a solid addition to the Nets offense this year. Jack played in 80 games this year, along with 27 starts, becoming integral to the Nets success.
In the playoffs, Jack’s leading of the second unit will be extremely important. And in the event of a Williams slump, Jack is more than capable of replacing him for a quarter, half, or even a game in the starting lineup.
Jack has also hit some huge shots this year, including a game-winner against the Los Angeles Clippers in the final seconds.
Mason Plumlee is one of the most exciting young players on the Nets, and will look to make an impact in the playoffs. One disadvantage Plumlee may be playing into is the Hawks solid depth at power forward, but Plumlee will still look to make the most of his time on the floor. In his second year in the playoffs, Plumlee may be ready to make a big impact off the bench.
Bojan Bogdanovic is young, but already an efficient scorer. 45% field goal shooting will earn Bogdanovic some key minutes in this series, and he’s capable of producing. Leading the charge in scoring in the Nets regular season finale is a testament to his scoring ability when it matters most.
Lastly, Earl Clark may not earn big minutes, but can plug and play whenever needed at small forward and power forward. Clark’s also had a knack for some timely shots early in his Nets career.
First, let’s review the points made and which team has the edge in each category.
- Recent Play: Nets
- Overall Play: Hawks
- Season Series: Hawks
- Starting Lineup: Hawks
- Bench: Nets
The Hawks are the top seed for a reason, and should be favored in this series, even if it’s a long one.
But that’s not to say they have to win the series. The Nets are a team capable of beating anyone in the NBA on any given night. Wins against the Cavaliers, Warriors, and Clippers are a testament to their ability to show up in big games. Inconsistency has been the Nets downfall to this point. If the Nets beat the inferior teams and weren’t so susceptible to big runs by opposing teams, they could easily be at least the sixth seed in the East.
For the Nets, this series depends on showing up and playing 48 minutes for up to seven games. If the Nets are focused, the offense produces, and the defense does enough to at least slow Atlanta, the Nets have a chance.
For the Hawks, this has been somewhat of a Cinderella season. As mentioned, the team didn’t draft any stud rookies or acquire any big names in free agency. Their biggest addition, Sefolosha, won’t even be able to play in the playoffs. A balanced team like Atlanta can afford an injury like Sefolosha’s, but his absence definitely lowers their overall potential as a team.
Basically, the Hawks came from being a perennial low-seeded, often one-and-done playoff team to the top seed without drastically changing. This is by no means a bad thing, kudos to them, but may be part of a formula for a first round upset.
In addition to a slightly improbable run to the East’s number one seed, the Hawks recent playoff history tells us two things.
The Hawks have made the playoffs each of the last seven seasons, with three series wins to show for it. Overall, the Hawks are 3-7 in their last ten playoff series during this span, including 0-5 in their last five series. The Hawks simply haven’t been able to get over the hump, never being bad enough to get a lottery pick, but never quite good enough for a deep playoff run.
The other indicator from the Hawks recent history is that a long series is to be expected. In the last ten playoff series, the Hawks have reached seven games four times, and six games four times. The other two series were sweeps, both in losing efforts.
Finally, the Hawks haven’t been playing at the highest level they have all season during the past few weeks. With starters in and out, making cameo appearances, or simply resting the entire starting lineup, the Hawks haven’t played in any high pressure games in the past month.
Meanwhile, the Nets have been fighting for their playoff lives basically since the All-Star Break. Even in the season finale, knowing their playoff fate hinged on another outcome as well, the Nets shook off early deficits for a decisive win that propelled them into the playoffs.
This is going to be a long series, and could end in six or seven games going either way.
But Sefolosha’s injury, the Hawks recent resting, and their overall playoff track record may be the perfect formula for the Nets to pull off an improbable upset.
The Nets insensitivity to game location, 19-22 both at home and on the road, will also prove valuable for the Nets in this series.
Atlanta will win three of the first five games, potentially taking all of their home games as victories. However, with a chance to close it out in Game 6, the Hawks will falter, and lose a close game in Brooklyn.
This series will come down to one final, winner take-all game in Atlanta. And while it will be hard fought, the winning team will thank it’s depth, grit, and versatility that made a seven game series win possible.
The Brooklyn Nets.
Brooklyn Nets in 7 games