Here we are, the playoffs. The Nets, the eighth and final seed in the Eastern Conference draw a matchup with arguably the best team in the East, the Hawks. The Hawks are Spurs-lite in the way they use ball movement and creative sets to find the open man and get highly efficient shots. Brooklyn is a clear underdog in this matchup, a team that falls into bad habits on both offense and defense—isolations, and ball watching, respectively. Here, we break down how the Nets can hit the Hawks Achilles heel throughout the series and steal some games from the top seed in the East.
The Nets are going to need a complete effort on offense, but the game will hinge on whether or not Brooklyn can keep up with the Hawks from downtown. Atlanta finished second in three-point percentage this season, Brooklyn finished in 26th. Atlanta has three-point shot maven Kyle Korver floating along the arc and the Nets need to be able to keep up with that. Joe Johnson has seen a decline in his perimeter shooting as the season has progressed, probably due to injuries and fatigue, but he needs to find that outside shot if the Nets plan to keep up with Korver and the rest of the Hawks.
It’s not just Johnson, though, Deron Williams needs to be a consistent threat from three, and Bojan Bogdanovic needs to keep up his hot shooting if the Nets want to even sniff a victory in this series. Brooklyn will lose every game f they plan on settling for floaters or Brook Lopez post ups all game long. And if Mirza Teletovic comes back...
Now, how to get those shots.
Atlanta loves to trap the ball handler in a pick-and-roll. They are incredibly aggressive and rely on their cohesive defense to move on a string and help pick up the roller. The Nets have done a lot of work of late in the pick-and-roll, featuring Williams and Lopez. Williams has had a keen eye for finding Lopez rolling to the hoop, but few teams have such good defenders trapping the ball handler like Atlanta does.
This isn’t a D-Will/Lopez PNR, but we’ll get to that later. Here is just a small look at how the Nets can get easy looks out of the pick-and-roll. D-Will uses a quick Thaddeus Young screen going to his left. Williams stops quickly and fires the ball along the elbow to Young. The new Net got open because Mike Scott, Young’s defender, hard hedged out to DWill to cut off the driving lane.
Now, watch Mike Muscala. Muscala steps up to get Scott’s back and pick up Young if Young were to dive to the basket. Lopez, seeing that Muscala has no idea where he is now, sneaks under the hoop to the opposite side. Young, open and alert, sees that Lopez has gotten open and tosses him the ball right at the hoop. Muscala is too slow to recognize that Lopez has just scored two points.
This isn’t typical, usually the ball handler will try to keep the floor spaced and bring the big man out even further, but this was a smart use of a quick PNR by D-Will. If these simple actions are in his head, they can be dangerous for a Nets team to have.
Now, the big fella.
Again, the big man on the Hawks is going to hedge hard out to the ball handler, as seen by Al Horford here. DWill has done a fantastic job over the past month of finding Lopez in the pick-and-roll and splitting the defense, which he does here. If DWill is alert and can read these aggressive traps and find Lopez, the Nets will be playing 4-on-3 and have a huge advantage.
Something else that comes out of this particular set: DeMarre Carroll sees Lopez is going to get an open look so he dives down to the big man, leaving Joe Johnson wide open from beyond the arc. If Lopez looked up, he would have an open Johnson. He got an easy bucket here, but in the postseason, against the Hawks no less, every point count. May want to kick out.
A key to the Nets beating Atlanta is to get the ball moving, something the Nets have shown flashes of this season. By playing isolation basketball, the Nets would play right into the Hawks hand. Atlanta is too smart for the Nets to take a guy like Korver or Carroll off the dribble and finish. The Nets are going to need to utilize some creative plays, even just pick-and-rolls to get the Hawks defense moving and out of place. Maybe a PNR into a quick post by Lopez can get the Nets a good look. As Devin Kharpertian of TheBrooklynGame points out in this clip
The Nets are going to need to get the Hawks out of whack like they do here if they want any business keeping up with their high octane offense.
In conclusion, finding holes in this Hawks defense isn’t going to be easy. They are disciplined and don’t have a guy on defense you could necessarily attack. Jeff Teague is a speed demon with quick hands that can wreak havoc. Millsap and Korver aren’t defensive stalwarts but they are heady players who know their role (I’m personally looking forward to Thad Young vs. Paul Millsap). Carroll is the Hawks best defender who will almost certainly defend a struggling Johnson. Johnson won’t be able to get great position in the post like he did last year in the postseason against the Raptors, but that might be something the Nets need if they want a shot at winning some games. A hot Joe Johnson is a scary scene for the opposition.
Lastly, Al Horford. Horford is a big guy but Lopez is clearly the biggest man on the floor and with the way Lopez has been playing of late the Nets are going to need to attack that matchup. Lopez has been drawing fouls at an impressive rate over the past month-and-a-half, going to the line nearly five times per game over his last 25. It’s not James Harden-esque, but if Lopez can draw some early fouls on Horford, the glue to the Hawks, the Nets may be able to build some momentum.
The Hawks offense is a thing of art. Everyone in the starting lineup, and in the rotation really, is a threat to score from all over the floor. The Nets are a sub-par team on the defensive team and lack the athleticism to lock down teams for 48 minutes.
As said in the offensive section, the Nets are going to need to keep up with the Hawks as much as they can from beyond the arc. Atlanta’s key cog from the three-point line is Kyle Korver. Korver is arguably the best three-point shooter in the league and just needs an inch of room to get an efficient shot for himself. Overall, no guy in the Hawks rotation shoots below 30% from three. They are all threats and the Nets going to need to be prepared to get into a shooting match.
It may be wise for Hollins to put Markel Brown on the three-point destroyer. Brown has a near 6’9" wingspan that is perfect for closing out on Korver. He also has a high motor and can fight through screens, tailing Korver at all times. Of course, Korver is going to get his, he’s just too good, but if the Nets can take away some good looks for him, they can stay close. However, it won’t be easy. Korver, doesn’t need much time to get his shot off.
If the Nets can take away the Hawks three-point threat (there are countless others but Korver is the most dangerous) they can force them to go inside. Atlanta doesn’t do a lot of damage in the paint, according to TeamRankings.com, placing 19 in that category. Thad Young is a perfect matchup for the ailing Paul Millsap (he's played since), but Al Horford could kill Brooklyn with his versatility.
Horford is a do-it-all center who can dribble and shoot a little bit. Lopez is going to have his hands full trying to keep up with him from elbow to elbow and on high screens (teams have been attacking Lopez in the PNR all year) so this is where Mason Plumlee comes in.
Plumlee has struggled through the final month of the season with foul trouble and offensive issues, but the Nets need a big man to keep up with Horford. Plumlee measures up similarly to the former Florida Gator and with his speed and athleticism, he may be able to hold his own against Horford.
Again, it won’t be easy. Horford, as good as he is roaming all over the floor, he is just as good in the post. According to Synergy stats on NBA.com, Horford shoots 49% on post up possessions, fifth best of players with at least 150 post ups on the year. He’s quick, he’s smart, and he can finish. Lopez and Plumlee are both going to have to work their tail off to make sure Horford, a viable All-NBA candidate doesn’t torch the Nets.
Yet another weapon the Hawks have is their speed. Jeff Teague, and even their backup point guard Dennis Schroder, are tiny and quick and do a fantastic job of getting into the paint. Teague ranked seventh in the league this year in drives per game, per SportVu Data on NBA.com, with an even 11 per game. He also converted at a high clip, 46%, which is well above the league average for players playing at least 30 minutes per game. How should the Nets go about keeping Teague out of the colored area? To me, I’d give him the three, but he (and Schroder) is the exception. Teague shot a solid 34% from three this season, but Brooklyn would be wise to go under screens set for Teague and make him beat them from the outside. Teague does a lot of drive-and-kick work, so if DWill and Jarrett Jack keep the speedster out of the paint, this can stifle some offense. As seen in the below GIF:
This is a fine defensive possession from the Nets. It may not work well in the playoffs with the intensity high, but the timing and switching by Plumlee, who is showing a hand on Teague, and Jack, who gets in Millsap’s way is done very well and the Nets get Teague to take a three, one of the Hawks more inefficient looks.
As I alluded to above, Thad Young vs. Paul Millsap is going to be the most fun part of this series. Both are crafty players who play both inside and out and make the little plays for their teams. They both are small for the traditional four but are quick and smart, so I’m going to be all over this matchup. Young loves to fight for loose balls and win 50-50 balls for the Nets, who have played (mostly) inspired basketball since the All Star break. If Young can battle Millsap hard enough to get him out of his mojo—Millsap also plays inside-out like his fellow big Horford—the Nets can get a big leg up. Young is going to be needed often to double down on the post when Horford gets it, so the Nets may need to rely on some help defense, something that they have struggled with all year. But Young’s aggressiveness may negate that, and force Horford, or whoever is in the post, to take a bad shot without being able to look elsewhere.
Lastly, the Nets are going to need to close out hard on the Hawks three-point shot. The Hawks like to send several guys back to stop any transition opportunities for the opponent, so the Nets shouldn’t worry about getting crushed on the offensive glass, so they need to make sure they get a high hand up on anyone taking shots. The Hawks get looks from all over so the Nets need to be alert and have active hands. Two guys I am most interested in seeing their motor on the defensive end is Johnson and Jack, both of whom have been getting torched on the defensive end. Close out hard
We all know the Hawks are a monster. They are fun, they are smart, and they play basketball the fundamental way. A Finals run for this team wouldn’t be all that surprising but this team does lack a ton of playoff experience. If the Nets can used their veteran play and stay focused, they still probably won’t win the series, but they may steal a game or two from the number one seed.
The pending return of Mirza Teletovic will really aid Brooklyn in keeping the floor spaced and if his shot is still there, the Hawks will have another man to worry about on the outside.
The Nets are in for a tough series, but at least they made it here. The Playoffs are the playoffs and we all know this team wasn’t getting a championship, so why not extend the week a little bit further. With the way this team has played when everything is clicking, they’ve been a joy to watch. Hopefully they keep up their play that we saw over the past month and give us something happy to think about over the offseason.
Prediction: Hawks in 5