Season Series: 4-0, Hawks
Atlanta (Off. Rating: 6, Def. Rating: 7, Net Rating: 4)
Brooklyn (Off. Rating: 18, Def. Rating: 24, Net Rating: 22)
“I don’t think we have any advantage over the Hawks.” Those are the words of Brooklyn Nets coach Lionel Hollins. That can't be a good sign for the No. 8 seed trying to unseat the Atlanta Hawks. There's no shame in honesty, despite how brutal it can be at times. It's hard to beat good teams, and the Hawks are the epitome of a team. And while the collective is bigger than the individual, Atlanta also has four All-Stars who propelled them to success across the board. At their best, in the month of January, Atlanta went 17-0, posted an 11.9 Real Plus-Minus and shot 41.5% from the three-point line as a team.
How can the Brooklyn Nets possibly contend with that? Well, solving that puzzle sounds like a job for Hollins, a man who has struggled more than most in trying to figure out Atlanta, which went 4-0 against Brooklyn and won by a 17.3 margin of victory. The Hawks assisted on 67.6 percent of made field attempts this season, so Brooklyn's best bet is to find a way to slow Atlanta's pass-happy offense and stifle its efficient three-point shooters. Maybe then they can keep Atlanta from reaching the 114.0 points it averaged in the season series.
- MORE NBA: Final Power Rankings of all 30 NBA teams
The Case For The Hawks
The Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks both arrive in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs on Sunday, but they took completely different paths to the dais. The Hawks clinched a spot in the playoffs on March 3, the earliest a team solidified its postseason position since the Chicago Bulls clinched a spot on March 2 en route to a 72-10 season and the 1996 NBA title. Then they were guaranteed the No. 1 seed after a March 27 win.
From there, Atlanta settled in for the long, long wait for a playoff opponent. That wait lasted until the final day of the regular season, when the Brooklyn Nets backed into the playoffs by way of a critical Indiana Pacers loss. We traveled along that path to reach this point: Atlanta belongs here and Brooklyn is just visiting. The Hawks finished with a franchise-record 60 wins, because of an efficient, pass-centric offense rooted in sharing the ball and defensive load. Brooklyn, on the other hand, openly discussed the subject of selfishness as recently as their Monday loss to the Chicago Bulls. In short, Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, and crew are more than prepared to take on a Brooklyn team whose postseason run was in doubt until the final moment of the regular season. Atlanta also has the advantage of starting the playoffs at home, where it finished the season with a 35-6 record, second only to the Golden State Warriors's 39-2 mark.
The Case For The Nets
Despite their current standing, the Nets are flushed with players who have accomplished success in the NBA. Deron Williams was once listed among the league's best point guards, Joe Johnson once functioned as the focal point of a playoff team, and Brook Lopez once showed all the promise in the world as that rare low-post scorer. The issue is that Brooklyn has not been able to meld their singular talents into a formidable team.
Whether injury or inconsistency was to blame, the Nets backed their way into the postseason. While unlikely, now that they're here, there's a chance that talent can take over. There's also the chance that Atlanta might have started to come down from the lofty standard it set for itself. The Hawks are only 17-11 since the All-Star break, and they don't really seem to scare anyone the way the Cleveland Cavaliers or Golden State Warriors do. Riding a three-game losing streak into the playoffs does not add to the Hawks' mystique.
The Atlanta Hawks don't have a star, per se, but Paul Millsap has been as steady a presence as any on their roster. When the Hawks were at their best, so was Millsap. He averaged 18.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 1.4 steals in January as the Hawks reeled off 17 straight wins. So it should be no surprise that the Hawks' recent funk worked in concert with Millsap's shoulder injury. The Hawks went 3-2 in Millsap's absence, dropping games to the Wizards and Knicks. He came back for the final game of the season and played 27 minutes, but only posted five points and six rebounds. Millsap's return to form will be critical for the Hawks in this first-round series and going forward.
Telling stat: 17.3
It is not particularly encouraging for the Nets to face off with a Hawks team it has tried and failed to usurp in four tries. Even more damning is the fashion in which Atlanta has defeated Brooklyn. The Hawks averaged 102.5 points per game, but only failed to reach the 113-point threshold once in four meetings, including a 131-99 trouncing on April 4. What's more, that loss came only two weeks ago. Another, closer loss came on April 8. Once those games were in the books, a number emerged: 17.3. The Hawks posted a 17.3 margin of victory against the Nets. For context, the largest margin of victory ever posted over the course of a season was 17.5, from the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks.
Hawks in four. Based on everything listed above, it's hard not to pick the Hawks. As Hollins suggested, they have every advantage to fall back on and the Nets can only hope to slow them down. Despite their great success, few teams actually fear the Hawks, but the Nets have every reason to be afraid. It's hard to measure how long the Hawks' run will last, but there is little doubt they could sleepwalk through the first round.