The Hawks got a crucial Game 5 win Wednesday night in Atlanta. Atlanta was great from beyond the arc and executed their game plan to a T, with a major part being shutting down Brook Lopez. Lopez has been playing heavy minutes for Brooklyn all series long and has been the team's most consistent threat to score every trip down. Although, in Game 5, the Hawks had an answer to the seven-footer's game, by forcing him into the middle of the floor and having other defenders double down on him.
The Nets' center has been a force down low through the first four games of the series by simply being the biggest man out there and his soft touch in the paint. One of Lopez's biggest knocks though is that he struggles to pass out of the paint, as once the ball goes into him it rarely comes out. This hasn't been a problem for the Nets because Lopez has been a beast for the past two months, but last night the Hawks threw a lot of extra hands at him and the Stanford alum didn't have an answer.
Take the above play for example. Lopez tries to take Al Horford baseline, but the quick footed Horford doesn't give him it, forcing Lopez back to the middle. Then, Kyle Korver sinks down and gets his hands in front of Lopez, another obstacle in his way. Korver doesn't commit to Lopez but he does just enough to throw him off-balance and his shot off. It was great defense by Horford to get him away from the baseline, and smart defense by Korver to get involved and take Lopez out of his comfort zone.
Lopez was shooting 54% from the field through the first four games of the series. He was attacking the injured Horford and the slower Pero Antic. This was the one matchup where the Nets could've gotten a big leg up on the Hawks, and they were using it, thus the 2-2 series tie (a Deron Williams explosion didn't hurt either). In Game 5, though, it was all Atlanta. They used team defense and their speed to shut Lopez down and force tough shots. The Nets go-to play, a Lopez screen and short roll, was shut down for the most part in Game 5, due to the Hawks tight rotations.
In this set, Horford stays at home, giving Lopez the 15-foot shot if he wanted it. Lopez however tries to take Horford off the dribble, which he has done at times this series, but it doesn't work. The spacing is crammed with Lopez unable to roll all the way into the paint and he is too close to the three-point line. DeMarre Carroll recognizes this and helps Horford on the Lopez drive. As the big man turns to back down Horford he sees Carroll doubling down on him. Lopez tries to fire it back out but it doesn't work, Carroll and his 6'10" wingspan gets a piece of the ball and it is going the other way. The Hawks applied the perfect amount of pressure to Lopez, especially when he turned his back to the basket, and forced up fadeaways and runners.
A key to the Nets run in this series has been through the decision making of Lionel Hollins. He is essentially going with seven guys the entire game—Jarrett Jack and Alan Anderson being the only one's off the bench, for the most part. Mason Plumlee is receiving minutes, but only because the Nets have no other options at center. They have trotted out Thaddeus Young at times at center, but Hollins hasn't invested that much time with it. Mirza Teletovic received minimal minutes as a super-small ball center during the regular season, but he has seen eight minutes through five games.
Lopez has been playing nearly 40 minutes per game thus far, and it is showing in the fourth quarter, as Anthony Puccio pointed out Thursday morning. Lopez is clearly gassed by the end of games (he hardly made it up and down the floor in overtime of Game 4) and the Nets need to find an answer at center behind Lopez. Plumlee is too much of a liability on the floor as Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer has opted to "Hack-a-Plumlee" when he is on the floor.
Last night saw Paul Millsap and Al Horford switch a lot between Joe Johnson and Lopez. This is a huge development because it can thwart an often used play by the Nets: the Johnson/Lopez pick-and-roll.
For a Hawks team that is so tough to get past already, Lopez can not let Millsap push him out of the paint like he does here. Of course, Lopez may just be gassed and this may be an outlier, but it is worth monitoring in Game 6 and potentially Game 7. On this play, watch Millsap force Lopez out of the paint and into an incredibly difficult shot. Very impressive stuff from the All Star Millsap.
This isn't panic time for the Nets. Their backs are against the wall, but they have been competitive in every single game thus far. Brooklyn is going to need a big game from #11 Friday night if they want to play on Sunday, and beyond, but they need to find a way to get him the ball in a good place where he can succeed.