By Steve Lichtenstein
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The definition of a Nets fan's fool's gold: A Jarrett Jack hot shooting streak.
The reserve guard almost single-handedly willed Brooklyn to an improbable come-from-behind victory in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals on Wednesday night in Atlanta.
I say almost, because though Jack scored 12 straight points for Brooklyn to whittle what was a 12-point deficit at the start of the fourth quarter down to a single point with 4:41 remaining, the consequences of the Nets relying on Jack's one-man attack goes to the root as to why they failed to get over the hump for a third consecutive road game. The Hawks' 107-97 win instead sent the Nets to the brink of elimination, trailing three-games-to-two as the best-of-seven series returns to Barclays Center on Friday.
During Atlanta's decisive 17-8 run, Jack—who posted a final stat line of 18 points, six assists, four rebounds and two steals--committed two costly turnovers trying to do too much on his own before missing a pull-up above-the-break three-pointer with a minute left that could have closed the gap to three points.
The Hawks, playing with the intensity befitting a top seed that won 60 regular season games after a pair of head-scratching efforts in Brooklyn, made the Nets pay for their basketball sins.
You see, Atlanta doesn't rely on one guy to play hero every possession. Sure, point guard Jeff Teague scored nine points over the final 4:24, but that's only because he created space by finding center Al Horford for a couple of uncontested pick-and-pop jumpers in that same span.
Nets center Brook Lopez was put in damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you don't positions—he could either hang back and protect the rim on Teague's drive or he could run out to challenge Horford's shot.
Gassed from playing 22 of 24 second-half minutes (because backup Mason Plumlee can't be trusted to make free throws), Lopez did neither well.
It's all part of the Hawks' Spurs-like offensive system under former San Antonio assistant Mike Budenholzer that features plenty of extra passing, and then more extra passing, until the ball reaches one of their many high-percentage shooters with time to take an uncontested field goal attempt. Few teams can rotate fast enough to cover everyone.
All five Atlanta starters (Horford, Teague, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap, and soon-to-be mega-millionaire DeMarre Carroll) play with that team-first mindset. For the most part, they minimize bad shots and live-ball turnovers.
For all 48 minutes. Their game does not change just because the score is close in the fourth quarter.
On the other hand, the Nets' offensive inefficiency down the stretch of tight games has been a problem all year. The Nets scored just 98.1 points per 100 possessions in the last five minutes of games during the regular season with a five-point-or-less differential, per NBA.com.
Even during those games where the Nets moved the ball beautifully for the first three-and-half quarters, the end games often devolved into one-one-one, isolation madness.
They do take turns. Some possessions it's Joe Johnson. Others it's Lopez.
Too often it's Jack, who made a trio of big-time shots that won games in January but also shot the Nets out of too many other winnable games during the season.
It's why the 31-year old Jack has traversed the country playing for seven different teams in 10 seasons. The Nets obtained him from Cleveland last summer because the Cavs needed to shed salary so they could sign free agent LeBron James.
The problem is that Jack often plays like he believes he's as gifted as LeBron James.
Nets coach Lionel Hollins appeared to have gotten through to Jack during the two games in Brooklyn. Jack played like a more traditional point guard, looking to create for others as opposed to for himself.
Before Game 4, Hollins said of Jack, "What he did better than anything was he made plays. Usually he just shoots the ball."
"But he made plays for other people, which was huge with the way that (the Hawks) play us," Hollins continued. "That's as important as the shooting. He got the ball moving to the other side and activated our offense and activated their defense to closing out—just like they're trying to do to us."
Ah, but when Jack started knocking down jump shot after jump shot (including two above-the-break three-pointers, where he misfired on 77 of 96 regular season attempts) in the fourth quarter on Wednesday, his preternatural instincts took over.
Mistakenly believing this was a mano-a-mano duel with Teague—who just burned him with a step-back three-pointer to bump Atlanta's lead to 93-89—Jack overdribbled into a flock of Hawks waiting for him in the paint and coughed up the ball, which eventually led to a Carroll layup on the other end.
Jack's second huge turnover came with 1:18 remaining. Jack dribbled around a Lopez screen, again looking for his own shot first. But he got caught in the air when the Hawks blitzed and was forced at the last moment to toss the ball back in Lopez's direction. Jack touched the ensuing loose ball first, which was a traveling violation.
The fact is that other than a couple of Johnson bombs that kept Brooklyn within reach until the final minute, all of the Nets' end-game possessions were disastrous. Besides Jack's poor decisions, Lopez bricked a ridiculously difficult fadeaway and Johnson blew a reverse layup in traffic—both off isolation plays.
What's amazing is that the Nets have actually given the Hawks quite a scare this round despite such 20th century end-game execution. Brooklyn's resolve in the face of adversity—they came back from a 2-0 series hole and were down 17 points at the end of the first quarter on Wednesday—has been admirable. The Nets deserve credit for their responses to the Hawks' frequent offensive barrages. None of these games have been blowouts.
And there have been a good number of stretches where the Nets have moved the ball like a modern professional basketball team. They've always had weapons. Even though Deron Williams disappeared in a big game yet again on Wednesday following a 35-outing in Game 4, Alan Anderson picked up the slack with 23 points on 9-for-11 shooting from the floor.
Whether they can extend the series back to Atlanta (or even beyond) will depend on whether they stick to or deviate from the ball-movement foundation that wins games at this time of year.
And the best thing that can happen in Game 6 to ensure that the Nets play the right way? If Jarrett Jack misses his first couple of shots.
For a FAN's perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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