By Steve Lichtenstein
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This was the game the Nets were praying for.
For whatever reason, the top-seeded Hawks—a finely tuned and well-schemed bunch that accumulated 60 wins during the regular season—left their "A" game on the bench after the first quarter of Sunday's Game 1 of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal series in Atlanta.
Maybe the Hawks were a tad out of shape since they hadn't played a meaningful game in about a month. Or maybe they were a bit overconfident from having swept the Nets in four regular season meetings, only one of which was close.
A team that converted 38 percent of their three-point field goals (second-best in the NBA) over the course of 82 games missed 20 of their 30 attempts from long range on Sunday. The Hawks were also uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball, turning it over 13 times over the final three quarters.
And yet the Nets still came up short. Thanks to a comedy of their own errors and a questionable game plan, the Nets dropped the series opener, 99-92.
I'm not a glass half-full sort, so don't expect me to reach for positives out of Brooklyn's performance. Rather, I predict that the Nets' failure to capitalize on such a rare opportunity bodes ill for Wednesday's Game 2 in Atlanta.
You see, while I expect the Hawks to raise their game as the series advances, the Nets have been this inconsistent all season.
Brooklyn's penchant for isolation one-on-one basketball played right into the Hawks' active hands. The Nets committed 17 turnovers, eight in the game's initial 14 minutes. The Hawks had 11 steals, which contributed to their 15-2 advantage in fast break points. The Nets didn't register an assist until one minute into the second quarter.
Many have argued that Nets coach Lionel Hollins should have put more emphasis on creating shots for center Brook Lopez on Sunday. After all, Lopez has been Brooklyn's best player since the All Star break, averaging 19.7 points per game on 52.5 percent shooting from the floor.
Well, the Hawks were also very aware of those numbers. Coach Mike Budenholzer's schemes to take away the "pocket pass" out of the Nets' pick-and-rolls with Lopez and point guard Deron Williams eliminated Brooklyn's primary delivery method to get Lopez the ball in scoring positions.
Let's not forget that Lopez was far from dominant when isolated in the post this season. He had a habit of taking bad shots and has been a notoriously poor passer out of double teams. I would also add that the refs have unfairly singled out Lopez's ability to get to the free throw line using his "rip move" this season.
The last thing the Nets needed on Sunday was more stagnation, which is what you get when the Nets just dump the ball into Lopez's hands 20 feet from the basket and ask him to create offense.
Besides, it's hard to argue with Hollins' insistence that Lopez station himself closer to the rim so he can pick up garbage points off offensive rebounds. Of Lopez's 17 points, nine were of the second-chance variety.
Playoff basketball is a chess match, with coaches making adjustments and then adjustments to the adjustments. However, while I expect Lopez to be more "involved" on Wednesday and take more than seven shots, it won't be easy to open up room inside with all those bodies in white jerseys clogging the paint, bumping Lopez as he rolls off screens.
It would be beneficial if the Nets could make the Hawks pay for their over-helping by increasing their efficiency from three-point territory. 5-for-20 won't cut it.
Joe Johnson and Bojan Bogdanovich, two of the Nets better shooters from behind the arc, combined to misfire on 10-of-11 three-point attempts.
And yet Brooklyn was right there in the second half with a chance to steal Sunday's game. A 15-point fourth-quarter deficit was cut to four with 1:30 remaining in the game.
Except the Nets couldn't get off a decent shot the rest of the way.
Look, I expected this series to go the way the first quarter was played, when the Hawks flew out of the gate to a 32-20 lead. The Nets bumbled their way through the first 2:20 of the second stanza as well when Hollins incomprehensibly played his five-man reserve unit (which got outscored, 7-3) before settling in.
So the Nets didn't get blown out on Sunday--that doesn't mean they found a Hawks' weakness they can exploit all series. Brooklyn's defense wasn't that stellar that it can bank on the Hawks again shooting 40 percent from the field like they did over the final three quarters. The Hawks All-Star frontcourt tandem of Paul Millsap and Al Horford will surely do better than the 7-for-23 outing they posted on Sunday.
The Nets will still have no answer for Atlanta All Star Kyle Korver, who on an off night still buried 5-of-11 threes in the faces of Markel Brown, Bogdanovich and Alan Anderson—all of whom routinely gave the lethal marksman too much space (or fouled him in the act of jump shooting). Hawks point guard Jeff Teague took over out of middle-of-the-court pick-and-rolls any time the Hawks got a wee bit desperate, and Teague's backup—Dennis Schroder—created more headaches for the Nets with his speed.
As I mentioned in the series preview, a lot has to go right for the Nets to just win a game. For starters, they need to minimize all the silly decisions that TNT's class clown Shaquille O'Neal compiled for a halftime segment titled "What The Hell Is This?"
Williams needs to be more assertive on the offensive end. Reserve point guard Jarrett Jack and power forward Thaddeus Young--who has been so good for the Nets since his acquisition at the trade deadline--need to be less. And Earl Clark should never EVER play another meaningful minute.
I would expect that the Nets will send the rookie Brown—the nominal starter—back to the bench for Game 2. If Anderson is fully recovered from the ankle sprain that sidelined him for the regular season's final seven games, he should get the nod. Maybe forward Mirza Teletovic can provide a boost, assuming he gets the green light from the Nets medical staff after a three-month hiatus due to blood clots in his lungs.
But all that is window dressing. The Hawks are the superior team—by far. If they show up with their usual fire in their eyes on Wednesday, the Nets will be toast.
The shame of Sunday is that Atlanta opened a small window for the Nets to make this an interesting series, and they failed to take advantage of it. Don't count on it occurring again in Game 2.
For a FAN's perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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