Hawks set tone, pace with Game 1 playoff win over Nets
ATLANTA -- When Nets coach Lionel Hollins addressed his team after its 99-92 Game 1 loss to the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks, his message offered something very few gave his team entering the postseason: Hope.
"As I told the team after the game," Hollins said, "if you (didn't) believe that you can play in this series, you should believe it now."
Atlanta, a bona fide title contender that regularly beat top teams from both conferences, features more talent, plays a better and more efficient brand of basketball and owns the home-court advantage over a team it toyed with during the 2014-15 campaign. Still, Hollins watched as his group matched the Hawks' runs, kept swinging and, in his own words, walked away with more confidence.
This is the underdog's calling card. In a series projected to be a four- or five-game formality, the Nets are going to put a positive spin on every twist and turn -- it's practically the 8-seed's responsibility in such situations. How much truth is there behind the encouragement? It's important to note that the Hawks never trailed after taking a 3-2 lead 39 seconds into the game. They posted better shooting numbers, took better care of the ball and made defensive stops when absolutely needed.
The favorite held the upper hand throughout.
Brooklyn isn't exactly limping aimlessly into Wednesday's Game 2, though. As its coach said, there are positives to take away from a close road loss at a venue that has witnessed just six Hawks losses this season. The Nets' chances in this series now come down to building on those positives and extrapolating them over the course of 48 minutes, particularly stylistically.
Prior to the playoff opener, Hollins made it clear that pace of play would be his primary point of emphasis in the series, using some form of the phrase "impose our will" on multiple occasions. Brooklyn cannot run with Atlanta, and Atlanta knows it. If the Nets are going to have a prayer at even keeping this series respectable -- keeping in mind they lost all four regular-season meetings by an average of 16.5 points -- they'll need to slow the tempo. Possibly to a brisk crawl.
"If we execute on offense, the pace will be slow. If we turn the ball over, the pace will be fast," Hollins said. "I think that's shown in the games. When we turn the ball over, we've gotten shattered. ... Playoff time doesn't change (anything) at all. It gets heightened because there's a lot of pressure on certain teams when they play slow and there's a lot of pressure on other teams when they play fast. We're going to try to keep it at our pace. We don't want to just get up and down and get into a rat race."
His counterpart, Mike Budenholzer, did not disagree: "I think our pace is a priority. I think, as a group, we've got to understand how important it is and we walk that line between every possession becomes a little more important, a little more valued, but we don't believe in all of a sudden tightening up or anything like that. Sometimes I think those situations may lead to actually more turnovers. It's a great balance of that aggressiveness and pace and making sure that we're getting good looks and good opportunities."
In the regular-season series, the Hawks hit the 94-possession mark three times. (The adjusted pace on Sunday night was 93.6 possessions.) Brooklyn, the seventh-slowest team in the NBA this season in terms of tempo, wanted to rein that in as best it could by limiting easy baskets and forcing the Hawks to defend via patient, efficient offense.
The Nets' efforts were not altogether futile.
In spite of their obvious flaws, so-so shooting and 17 turnovers, they were able to erase a substantial first-half deficit and keep the game in single digits for the better part of the final 30 minutes of play. It was a two-possession game at the two-minute mark. The Hawks were required to execute down the stretch, as opposed to cruising to the finish line, which looked like a definite possibility in the early going.
In short, Brooklyn made a relative mess of things, taking a Hawks team limited by injuries to All-Star big men Paul Millsap (shoulder) and Al Horford (dislocated finger) out of its rhythm.
Aside from hitting 21 of its 22 free throws, Atlanta was not clicking on all cylinders. How much the Nets had to do with those struggles -- Hawks wings Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll did an admirable job of covering up for those Game 1 shortcoming with quality defensive effort and excellent outside shooting (7 of 17 from long range) -- remains to be seen.
"I just alluded to it with the 57-54 score (in the third quarter), we took about three or four quick shots and made a turnover and allowed them to get out and just run. The next thing you know they had a 15-2 run," Hollins said, referencing a key second-half stretch that the Nets could not overcome. "We need to play at our own pace, which is not slow-slow, but it's not taking the first quick shot, just pushing the ball up the court and taking a quick shot. We have to make them play defense a little bit.
"If we execute and work for a better shot, it certainly bodes well for us."
The players are not completely oblivious to the contrasting styles.
Reserve pace-car Dennis Schroder, the Hawks' backup point guard who set a career playoff high with 13 points, said that Hawks coaches have stressed that he and starter Jeff Teague to push the pace all season -- and that nothing will change just because the calendar has hit mid-April, especially with Brooklyn in town.
"I think we've gotta push it 48 minutes, the whole game. I think (the Nets) can't check us like that. That's hard to guard for 48 minutes," Schroder said. "When Jeff comes out, I'm going to do it. When I come back out, he's going to do it. I think that's really tough to guard."
In playing their first meaningful game since the end of March, the Hawks were clearly pleased to get the first playoff win under their belts. They need the Millsap-Horford duo to get back on track -- and, more importantly, to be healthy -- and to limit their turnovers moving forward, but there's no room for panic when a team doesn't play particularly well and still comes out on top.
Brooklyn is taking what it needs to out of the outcome, but the Hawks are in the driver's seat until further notice.