The 22-game difference in the standings between the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks and No. 8 seed Brooklyn Nets means nothing now that their first-round playoff series is headed back to Atlanta on Wednesday night knotted at two games apiece.
Nor did it matter that the Hawks won all six meetings this season before arriving in Brooklyn for Game 3 and 4. And no one seems to be concerned with Deron Williams’ previous struggles any longer.
Williams scored a playoff career-high 35 points, hit seven 3-pointers and led the Nets to a 120-115 overtime win Monday as they evened the series after dropping the first two in Atlanta by a combined 12 points.
All four games have been competitive. Brooklyn fended off a rally to win 91-83 in Game 3, then overcame an eight-point deficit in the fourth quarter of Game 4 as Williams scored 16 in the period.
An eight seed has taken a series from a No. 1 five times – most recently when Philadelphia beat Derrick Rose-less Chicago in 2012 – but none of those No. 8s finished below .500 in the regular season. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer attributes the Nets’ push to the circumstances of playoff basketball and expected to be challenged.
But by a Brooklyn team that received plenty of scrutiny for underachieving during a 38-44 season?
Williams felt the brunt of the criticism while averaging 13.0 points – his worst since a 10.7 average in his 2005-06 rookie season with Utah – and shooting a career-worst 38.7 percent from the field.
Not long before the playoffs began, former teammate Paul Pierce blasted Williams in an interview saying that the veteran point guard lacked leadership qualities and buckled under the pressure during Pierce’s one season in Brooklyn in 2013-14.
Williams says his current teammates have been nothing but supportive. Jarrett Jack even fired back at Pierce publicly after Williams’ performance in Game 4.
"I think we’ve been rallying around each other the last month or so," Williams said. "Definitely the guys rallied around me and it means a lot. It just shows we’re definitely coming together as a unit. It’s taken longer than we thought, but it’s happening."
Williams averaged 9.5 points in three regular-season games against the Hawks, scored 13 in Game 1 and totaled five points in the next two games while shooting 2 for 15.
Hawks center Al Horford, who had 17 points in Game 4, believed it was only a matter of time before Williams broke through.
"We understand and we know that Deron’s capable of doing that," Horford said. "You can only contain that type of player for so long. He had three not-so-great games (in the series). He came out (Monday) and he was the difference."
Now Atlanta heads home, where it has won 24 of 27, including the wins in this series. The Hawks may have come up empty in Brooklyn, but that doesn’t mean they’re fretting about their situation.
The Hawks got 20 points apiece from Jeff Teague and DeMarre Carroll on Monday, and Paul Millsap added 16 and 12 rebounds.
"It’s a great challenge for us to go back home," Budenholzer said. "It’s the playoffs. This is what it’s all about."
One concern for Budenholzer is that Brook Lopez has been winning the battle inside with Horford. Lopez has three double-doubles in the series and his point total has increased with every game after finishing with 26 points and 10 boards Monday.
He’s a big reason Brooklyn has built some confidence heading back to Atlanta, where it has lost 12 of 14.
"After those first two games, we felt like we could play a lot better and we had chances to win both of them," Williams said. "I think we’ve been very positive throughout this series."