Nets-Hawks Playoff Preview

After the dust settled, a wild Nets season brought a third consecutive playoff berth to Brooklyn.  Brooklyn was written off numerous times, dismissed as a team that was lottery bound (without the accompanying pick).  Then Brooklyn was counted in, as a team going to the postseason.  Then they were counted out again.

Do some east teams that missed the playoffs have a brighter future outlook? Of course.  Are the other playoff teams either clearly better than Brooklyn right now, or expected to grow more in the future? Of course.

But the bottom line is that the Nets are in today’s playoffs, and the team (and its fans) should savor the moment.  There are no guarantees or promises in the NBA: sometimes the best laid plans go to waste (before Billy King purged the Nets’ asset pool, he built it: the Nets once were that bad team with a ton of flexibility).  Heat-Pacers, Heat-Bulls, and Heat-Thunder were projected as late playoff matchup fixtures in recent years: three are in the lottery and a fourth has been derailed (Chicago is good, not great: great was expected after 2010-2011) due to injuries, and dissension within the organization.

You never know what the future holds in the NBA, regardless of how smart a team is or how much it has planned.  So, while team building matters (I constantly Tweet about it and write about it on this site), you also have to enjoy the present.

Nets fans: enjoy the present.  Savor this 2015 playoff run.  Maybe Brooklyn gets Kevin Durant in 2016 and he forms a team of super friends in Barclays.  Maybe Brooklyn misses out on all notable free agents, Brook Lopez walks, and the Nets are a 60 loss team in two years.  There is no way to know what will happen in the future, and when the offseason comes, there will be plenty of time to evaluate Brooklyn’s.

For now, however, this is about enjoying the playoffs.  And talking Hawks-Nets.

LET’S BE REALISTIC: BROOKLYN IS A TREMENDOUS UNDERDOG

Can the Nets beat the Hawks? I will say yes, only because anything can happen in sports.  Tracy McGrady scored 13 points in 35 seconds.  CJ Watson didn’t lay it in.  Reggie Miller scored 8 points in 9 seconds.  The Seahawks were on the 1 yard line with a monstrous running back and lost the Super Bowl.   So yes, the Nets can beat the Hawks  You can also win the lottery multiple times over and earn enough cash to buy the Nets from Mikhail Prokhorov.

For whatever reason, many seem fixated on the idea that the NBA is about having one incredible superstar, and that rosters as a whole do not matter (2014 Spurs, 2011 Mavs, 2008 Celtics, 2004 Pistons, and numerous near champions like Nash’s Suns notwithstanding, somehow).  Not only is that false, but the game has changed to pronounce that falseness.

The new prototype NBA contender has multiple players who can dribble (to slice through defenses and maneuver them out of position), pass (so that the defense does not have time to recover), and shoot (so that when people are open due to the dribbling and passing, they can knock shots down.  The league has gone away from the days of “give it to player X and let player X do his thing.  The Spurs destroyed the 2014 playoffs, without the best player in any series it played.  Arguably, the Blazers, Thunder, and Heat teams they beat had the best two players in the series.

The Hawks have all the parts.  Nearly every single player in their rotation can dribble, pass, and shoot.  Jeff Teague beats opposing point guards off the bounce and probes defenses, ranking 4th in the NBA in drives this season, per Sports VU statistics.  He also can shoot and pass.  Once he gets into the defense and double teams come, problems arise.  Kyle Korver gets open around screens and must be accounted for, and DeMarre Carroll can shoot the rock as well.  Paul Millsap and Al Horford: they also have deep range, and are quick for their positions, which allows them to round out the attack.  Dennis Schroder probes the defense when he checks in for Teague, and Mike Scott, Pero Antic, and Kent Bazemore round out the roster with productive play in similar ways.

Carroll is also an underrated weapon.  In any sport (or any game, period), it is valuable to excel in the skills everyone is trying to present, and to excel in stopping teams from executing those skills.  Carroll has the ability to guard multiple positions and has quick feet to contain penetration: in a league where teams try to create cross matches and penetrate to the hoop, those skills are very valuable (in the way that NFL secondaries have become more valuable with the NFL passing revolution).

The Hawks have all the parts.  You do not rank top 7 in the NBA on both ends of the floor if you don’t. Many knock their lack of a 20 point per game scorer as if that’s a requirement for a title (and as if the 2014 Spurs do not exist).  The Hawks also rank second in the NBA in clutch time offense and the Celtics are now notorious for excelling late getting baskets: you do not need 1 “heroball” player to score late in games.

The Nets problem in this series?  Most of their rotation players have similar flaws.  Deron, Joe, Bojan, and Brook (4 of the Nets top 5-6 pieces) are all slow for their position.  Markel Brown is likely the only Net that can even try to stay in front of Teague, but that requires Bojan to sit.  Bojan and Joe will struggle with Korver running around screens, and with recovering to Carroll to contest 3’s.  Millsap being undersized does help Thad, but Brook will struggle with Horford’s midrange game, quickness, and ability to get to his spots inside.

On the other end, the Hawks rotations are crisp, and the Nets will find it challenging to score.  Of worry, the offense is simple, and the Hawks will have time to figure things through.

A NOTE ON DERON WILLIAMS AND THE DRIBBLE DRIVE CONUNDRUM

One side note: as I lay out above, the dribble drive is a HUGE part of the modern game.  The Nets resurgence occurred because Deron became reinvigorated, and began attacking off the bounce with vigor, began pulling defenses out of position.  That pulling opens up Brook’s inside game (it’s much easier to get his shots off with space and creases), Thad’s slashing and cutting game (it’s easy to attack open lanes, hard to attack closed ones), and the arc for Joe and Bojan.  Deron is also the only player on the roster capable of doing those things, he just does not do them all the time — and that is why he gets criticized so often.  Deron got away from that in the last 3 games of the year and Brooklyn suffered for it.

Brooklyn will need an engaged Deron Williams to have a puncher’s chance in this series.

SO WHAT CAN THE NETS DO ABOUT THE HAWKS?

For all the talk of how bad the Nets are, much of that has occurred because teams are often judged and graded on the scale of expectation. Expectations for the Nets (externally, and even more so internally), were sky-high when they made the Boston trade.  The Nets have not met those expectations and are graded on that curve.  The Utah Jazz were considered a team that had a great year, the Nets viewed as an abomination: both went 38-44.  The reason for that is grading based on expectation.

If you do not look at the salary cap or asset situation (and yes, both are bad), and just judge teams based on 2014-2015 and what they did, what the Nets were was a mediocre team.  They went 38-44: they won some, and they lost some.  They are not terrible, but they are not good, either.  They are a decent team with plenty of flaws, but also strengths.  Each player on the roster can help in some way.

Joe Johnson: the Nets have to retain hope Johnson can change the series, however improbable.  Johnson is a tough cover when he’s on his game because the league is getting smaller, which makes him a gigantic wing capable of bullying wings inside.  If Johnson can do that to Carroll, perhaps Atlanta would throw Millsap at him to cross match, which would open up other pieces (like Thad) for baskets.

Deron Williams: the Nets are a different team when Deron is playing quality basketball.  They were off to a 4-2 start when he came out with the right mindset to open the year.  They looked good when he won player of the week.  They rolled into position to clinch a playoff berth due to his mini revival (not full-fledged) late in the year.  The Nets are essentially a 45-50 win team capable of doing damage when Deron is on (which happened for about 25 games this season), and a 25-30 win team when he is off his game: that’s the difference his play makes.  That averaged out to a 38-44 record.  If Deron has a good series, the Nets can at least make the Hawks know they are there.

Brook Lopez: Lopez is bigger than Horford, and while Horford is excellent defensively, Brook struggles most with big, burly centers who can push him around, and does have a matchup with Horford that he can excel in.  If Brook can own the paint, perhaps that can force Atlanta to make adjustments, and open up the floor for others.

Alan Anderson: You may be surprised to see him featured, but AA is a classic example of roster fit.  The Nets have multiple players who, even when playing well, excel offensively but struggle or are just average defensively.  Anderson is a very good perimeter defender, and is the only Net that provides this skill except for Markel Brown, who is too small to guard 3’s and gets lost off the ball.  That makes Anderson very valuable to Brooklyn: he is the only Net with a necessary skill.  Anderson being healthy for Brooklyn could be a big boost: can Johnson and Bojan chase Korver around all game?

Markel Brown: He may wind up guarding Korver some, because he’s going to be quicker navigating screens than Joe or Bojan.  The concern is that Korver is much bigger than him, and his hand up on a 3 may not matter.  Were I Hollins, I would use Markel to guard Teague and Schroder to wall penetration.

Thaddeus Young: While it sounds weird to put him on Korver, he is quicker than Johnson and Bojan and may more easily chase Korver around screens.  Millsap is more of a face up big than a large bruiser, and Johnson may actually find guarding him easier than guarding Korver, given Johnson’s size and lack of speed.

The rest:  Bogdanovic has been a torrid shooter of late.  The NBA is a make or miss league, and if the Nets want to make this a series, Bojan needs to get hot.  Jack and Plumlee are good enough at basketball to play bench minutes but need to be smart.  When Jack takes midrange jumpers before looking for teammates and Plumlee isolates, bad things happen.  When Jack probes and lets others get theirs and Plumlee plays the garbage man role, good things happen.  Cory Jefferson and Earl Clark may receive spot minutes, and the general goal there is for them not to hurt the team but just be a net neutral.

PREDICTION

Hawks in 4.  The Hawks are a great team, and the Nets are a mediocre one.  Their offense is supreme, and the Nets offense is good in spurts, but inconsistent.  Their defense is incredible, while the Nets are a collective sieve on that end.  They won 60 games, the Nets 38.  Deron is the key to the series for the Nets, but cannot be counted on in any objective sense (I can and will hope he has a great series, but I cannot count on that).

The Hawks are primed for a deep playoff run.  The Nets may squeak out a home game 3 off energy and adrenaline (the most common gentleman’s sweeps feature the road team winning game 3 with a huge burst of energy, as the home team, up 2-0 in the series, gets complacent), or perhaps they win a game 4 down 3-0, against a lazy Hawks team knowing they have a home game 5 in their back pockets.

Nets fans: enjoy the playoff run, whether it lasts for 4 games or 28.  The future could be grim, and while we do not know what will happen, we do know that uncertainty is abound.  So for now, enjoy the present, and embrace being a Titanic sized underdog.

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