By Steve Lichtenstein
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Of the NBA's eight conference quarterfinal matchups, only two managed to avoid having a team fall into what has been a historically insurmountable 3-0 series hole.
One is the defending-champion Spurs, a sixth seed in name only, engaged in a highly anticipated first-round dust-up with fellow West titan Clippers. The other?
That would be the Brooklyn Nets, down two games to one in their series with Atlanta.
The 38-44 eighth-seeded Brooklyn Nets? The shouldn't-have-been-here-except-for-a-fortuitous-confluence-of-events-on-the-final-day-of-the-regular-season Brooklyn Nets?
That's right, the team that almost no one wanted to see--nationally or locally—in the postseason has not, as many expected, gotten slaughtered by the 60-win Hawks in the first round.
To the contrary, Brooklyn has been in every game—even its two losses in Atlanta—and the Nets' 91-83 Game 3 victory on Saturday has turned what was supposed to be a walk in the park for the Hawks into a serious series.
At least for one more game.
Monday's Game 4 at Barclays Center will not be a "getaway day" after all. Brooklyn fans should be ecstatic.
So what if the 7 p.m. start time (and the inexplicable security line snarl) will mean that half the arena will be empty at tip-off. Or that the YES Network has again bumped an NBA playoff game for an early season baseball game.
The Nets will be playing a game with meaningful consequences!
This team has been dead and buried so often this season that some in the blogosphere have called them the "Zombie Nets." Almost everyone wants them to be finished off for good, yet here they still stand.
Mismanaged since before their arrival in Brooklyn three years ago by general manager Billy King, the Nets have embodied everything the modern NBA (including the Hawks) is not—slow, unathletic, abominable three-point shooting. King mortgaged virtually all of Brooklyn's future assets (including swapping their 2015 first-round draft choice with Atlanta in the Joe Johnson acquisition) to build a team that despite much hype has achieved all of one playoff series win.
Lionel Hollins came aboard last summer as the Nets' fourth head coach in three seasons, ensuring yet another learning curve at the start. On March 11, the Nets were a season-high 13 games under .500. The playoffs were a pipe dream, even in the putrid East.
So forgive me for a little enthusiasm here. While the rest of the country hasn't forgiven the league for its rules that allowed the Nets entry into the postseason (while omitting Russell Westbrook's Thunder, among other "more qualified" West teams), Brooklyn is now in position to stick it to all those haters.
Of course, one home win by Brooklyn did not alter anyone's projection regarding the ultimate outcome. The Hawks are still prohibitive favorites to take the series.
However, you can sense that the Nets have become increasingly hopeful as this series has evolved. They're in Atlanta's head a little bit. The usually sweet-shooting Hawks have missed a disproportionate share of open looks. Atlanta was fourth in the league in field-goal percentage during the regular season at 46.6 percent. The Hawks' 39-percent shooting through three games ranks last among the 16 playoff teams.
Some of that can be attributed to Atlanta's atrophy. The Hawks hadn't played a meaningful game in nearly a month, having wrapped up the Eastern Conference in late March. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer spent the remainder of the season managing minutes and resting key personnel for games of greater importance.
While that strategy helped the Hawks avoid major injuries, they seem a bit off. Thanks to the exquisite ball movement in Budenholzer's system, they've shown signs that they can rip off a game-changing run on a whim--only it hasn't happened.
Instead it was the Nets who took command of Game 3 with an 18-0 spurt that spanned the third and fourth quarters.
And for that, it's time to give Brooklyn a little credit. The defense—a sieve by any statistic all season—has yielded a mere 94.1 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs, per NBA.com. Only Tom Thibodeau's Bulls have been better.
Center Brook Lopez has been playing out of his mind—on defense. He's been fantastic at protecting the rim (even against Atlanta's hard-charging point guards Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder) while simultaneously controlling the backboards—a trouble spot throughout the regular season. Brooklyn's 80.6 defensive rebound percentage is good for second among playoff teams and is a vast improvement over its 73.7 regular season percentage.
A couple of caveats here—Hawks star center Al Horford has been nursing a dislocated pinky from Game 1, which could to some degree account for his 9-for-27 inefficiency from the field since. Also, Budenholzer for some reason has the Nets confused for the old Paul Westhead Loyola-Marymount teams. He's been so fearful of the Nets' barely-existent transition game that he has his Hawks mostly bypassing pounding the offensive boards in favor of having five guys sprint back on defense, as if he were coaching Princeton.
The Nets, meanwhile, finally took advantage of the Hawks' openings after leaving a couple of winnable games on the table in Atlanta. Despite another deplorable game from $100 million point guard Deron Williams (1-for-8 from the field, 3 turnovers in 26 minutes), they rode the hot early shooting of Bojan Bogdanovich (11 first-quarter points), a redemptive effort from forward Thaddeus Young (18 points, 11 rebounds), and a home crowd desperate for something positive to come out of this season.
Considering the number of lopsided series in the first round, Monday's game is a must-see event for all NBA fans.
Or not. The league has again relegated the game to NBA-TV instead of the more available national networks.
The Nets may not have earned any more respect after Saturday's win, but they should have at least piqued your interest.
For a FAN's perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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