Most surprising vs. Most disappointing? I don’t think you can dispute that the Atlanta Hawks were the most surprising team of the 2014-15 regular season. Going from sub-.500 and barely making the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference, to winning over 70% of your games against the Western Conference (22 out of 30) in route to the club’s first ever 60-win season is quite the turn around. For the Brooklyn Nets, you could argue that Brook Lopez’s injury led to a sub-par performance for a majority of the year and therefore their record is not a true reflection of their success. However, I present to you the Chicago Bulls and what they were able to accomplish with two injuries to two players (Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah) that kept them without a full lineup for much of the year. Both instances were cases of resiliency: Chicago showed it and Brooklyn didn’t. Which leads me to Paul Pierce’s comments concerning the Nets:
“If me and Kevin weren’t there, that team would have folded up. That team would have packed it in. We kept them going each and every day.”
If “The Truth” speaks, it has to be the truth, right?
Pierce has been around the league for a long time and knows what it takes to win. An assessment from him goes a long way in the NBA and in this case, hits the nail on the head. There isn’t much fight to the Nets and there sure isn’t an overwhelming source of leadership to drive them. If things start to go wrong early in this series for the Nets, it could be an quick exit for the Nets.
Key to the Series
Ball Movement – Atlanta is tied second in the league at over 25 assists per game and Brooklyn has given up over 23 per game, good for T-26th in the league (side note, they are tied with the Philadelphia 76ers here. If you are tied with the Sixers in anything this season, it is not indicative of success). Atlanta should lean on what won them 60 games this year and spread the fun around. Very few of the Hawks have 1 on 1 capabilities, but nearly all of them move well without the ball. NBA Coach of the Year candidate Mike Budenholzer preaches hard cuts and holding your screen. If Atlanta wants to make a run in this year’s playoffs, they will have to ride their ball movement and team chemistry. For fans of back screens and slip cuts, pay attention to the ball club from A-town.
Deron Williams – Perhaps the most noticed mark of criticism provided by Paul Pierce was the one he dealt to Nets’ PG Deron Williams. Williams hasn’t exactly lived up to many experts predictions for his entire career, but the timing of Pierce’s remarks will make for an interesting story line. Williams has MVP level talent, but, as Pierce has prompted us to examine, does he have the heart? Brooklyn desperately needs a leader to propel them to the next level and in today’s league, guard play is absolutely irreplaceable. Add it all up and you Deron Williams has to step up this series if they want to win. When looking at Williams’ career, only one season was worse from a production stand point than these past two years and that was his rookie season. If he can’t regain that MVP worthy form, Teague and the up and coming Schroeder will run circles around him.
With Thabo Sefolosha’s Night at the Roxbury gone wrong, Atlanta will be looking for some help on the perimeter, both defensively and offensively. Thabo surely showed he was valuable in his first season with the Hawks (17 -11 without Thabo, 43-11 with him) with his ability to defend on the perimeter and knockdown the corner 3. So who replaces him? Enter Kent Bazemore. If you have been to a game at Phillips Arena, this wouldn’t be much of a surprise replacement for Sefolosha. Bazemore has been an integral part of the bench play this season and has dazzeled fans with his 3-point shooting and overall athleticism. Can he do it on the big stage though? Thabo has been to the playoffs many times and even reached the Finals with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Thabo has been in 78 playoff games to Bazemore’s 9 and even in those 9, he averaged under 2 minutes per game. The play of Bazemore should prove to be the pendulum for this series. Look for the good to outweigh the bad as Bazemore steps up his defense for the Hawks.
Point blank: these are two teams’ trajectories crossed at some point in this season and they are continuing in their respective directions. Don’t look for the upward trending Hawks to extend a helping hand to the downward trending Nets this postseason. Budenholzer is on to something special in Atlanta and is only going to make this team better with time. This is merely the next stage in creating the Spurs of the East after his 18-year stint in San Antonio. This series will be a big step in the direction he wants to take this team, but don’t look for the Hawks to overlook a team they swept in the regular season with an average margin of victory of over 17 points per game.
I don’t know where the injury ends and the insult begins, but what I do know is this: The Nets are handing over the best non-lottery pick to the team that swept them during the regular season and also posted the best record in the Eastern Conference. Look for the big kick while they are down.
Atlanta in 4