The "Hack-a-Plumlee" strategy has arguably been Mike Budenholzer's smartest tactic against the Brooklyn Nets. Mostly because it's hurting Brook Lopez's effectiveness.
Brook Lopez was held scoreless in the fourth quarter of Game 5 and missed nine out of his 13 shots attempted in 39 minutes. He was inactive on the glass with only three rebounds.
He walked slowly up the floor in the fourth quarter as the Nets were in the midst of making a comeback that once saw them trail by 17. He wasn't much of a factor in the comeback because he was settling for tough fadeaway jumpers instead of attacking the hole and establishing himself inside the paint, the way he's done all series.
The sluggish Lopez wasn't injured, but rather gassed after playing a total of 124 minutes in the three games prior to Wednesday's loss. Lopez, the Nets' leading scorer in the series at 20 points per game, was noticeably exhausted and struggled to lead the offensive unit in the fourth quarter.
His contributions are too important for him to sit amid the crucial stages of the game, but he should've gotten some rest at certain points early on. There seems to be an underlying issue as to why he didn't get the necessary rest.
Lopez's backup, Mason Plumlee, has been a liability on the offensive end because Hawks Coach Mike Budenholzer has exploited his biggest weakness: free throws.
On the season, Mason Plumlee didn't even crack 50 percent at the line and the Hawks have taken advantage. Plumlee is rather limited with his offensive game as it already is; therefore his inability to knock down free throws has been costly for Brooklyn.
"(Lopez) was gassed. He was gassed the last two games at that point (late in the game)," Hollins said. "It's really difficult. He's a big man. We just couldn't at that point afford to sub with another big guy — mainly Mase, and if they go into the hack-a-Mase, then it could've been detrimental. But he played through it. I just have to figure out a way to give him a little more rest in different times. Being behind (early) changed everything. And we were scratching and clawing. It's just the way it is."
Hollins wants to give Lopez rest - needs to give Lopez rest, but is having a hard time doing so because the moment that Plumlee is inserted into the game, Buzenholzer has his guys foul him immediately. It's worked.
Plumlee has averaged just eight minutes in the series and has missed on six of the eight free throws he's taken. His minutes are way down because of so.
"It's just strategy," Hollins said. "They are doing their strategy, and we are doing our strategy, and they caught us off guard down here in Atlanta [in Games 1 and 2] when they did it. I wasn't caught off guard."
"I knew they were going to do it, but I was going to play him and I wasn't going to let them continue to do it and kill momentum."
It shouldn't come as a surprise, especially since Budenzholzer is utilizing the same strategy that his mentor Gregg Popovich has used - and is still using in the playoffs now. Instead, Popovich and the Spurs are hacking DeAndre Jordan, who sees much more playing time than Mason Plumlee. So, it could be much worse.
But that doesn't make the problem any better.
Other than Plumlee, the only other true center on the team is Jerome Jordan. "Romey" as Hollins calls him, hasn't had much of a role this season and it'd be rather strange to see him suddenly appear in the most important game of the season.
It's a very difficult position for Hollins, Lopez and the Nets to be in. But one they wouldn't be in if they still had Andray Blatche.
Excluding the off-court antics, Blatche was once of the most reliable backup centers the game had to offer in the past few years. In past years when Brook Lopez would sit, the offense wouldn't take much of a hit because Blatche was such a force on the offensive side.
He scored close to 11 points per game during his tenure in Brooklyn. There was no such thing as "Hack-a-Blatche" because he converted on 71 percent of his free throws.
It all comes back to the depth the Nets lost this past offseason, namely bench guys like Blatche, Andrei Kirilenko, Shaun Livingston, Marcus Thornton, and even Mirza Teletovic - whose seen limited action because he was for three months before returning this series.
If Blatche or any other reliable backup center were still around, the Nets would've avoided the issues that the Hawks have been exploiting. As a result, it would've given Lopez enough energy to do what he's done all series: take over.
Facing elimination, Plumlee will need to hit his free throws or else the Nets will have to go extra small with Thaddeus Young playing the five when Lopez sits. But then that leads to a rebounding issue.
Either way, such a minuscule issue such as free throw shooting from a backup center can change the entire dimension of a game - and in this case - the entire dimension of a series.