Three Man Weave

Three Man Weave: Playoffs Edition

It took the 82nd game of the 2014-15 season and a touch of scheduling luck, but the Brooklyn Nets successfully snuck into the playoffs and will tip off in Game One of their first-round series with the Atlanta Hawks today at 5:30 pm EST.

As is their nature, the Nets chose the more difficult route to the postseason, after sitting comfortably in the seventh spot in the standings heading into the final week of the schedule and then losing three of four to drop out of the playoff picture. A head-to-head tiebreaker over the surging Indiana Pacers gave the Nets a chance at the playoffs (as we outlined last week), provided the team could win against the Orlando Magic on the last night of the regular season and the Pacers fell in Memphis to the Grizzlies.

Bojan Bogdanovic supplied the offense against Orlando with a career-high 28 points, while the Pacers predictably struggled to score against the stingy Memphis defense and lost by double digits. Both teams finished with a 38-44 record, but Brooklyn’s regular season tiebreaker would put them into the playoffs and a first-round matchup with the (60-22) Atlanta Hawks.

Outside of a recent meeting from April 8th (a three-point defeat to a Hawks team missing Paul Millsap), this season’s Hawks/Nets affairs haven’t been particularly competitive. Atlanta has won all four games with a +69 point differential (or, if you will, three games by a combined-66 points), and presents a tough matchup for the slower and less athletic Brooklyn Nets squad.

The Nets and Hawks are almost completely different teams in the way they each attack on offense. The Nets feature an isolation-heavy, paint-based approach that ranks sixth in the league in percentage of points derived from two-point field goals, and second in field goal percentage from the mid-paint area (five to nine feet away from the rim). Atlanta finished as the fourth-most reliant team on three-point field goals and (coincidentally?) first in assisted scoring, and was the third-best shooting team from 15-19 feet, 20-24 feet, and sixth-best from 25-29 feet. (NOTE: All stats and shot locations are courtesy of the excellent site.)

As opposite as they seem in how (well) they score the ball, Brooklyn and Atlanta share some similarities on the defensive side. They each allow opponents to hoist away from the three-point line, with Atlanta first in the league in three-pointers attempted against per game and Brooklyn seventh. However, the Hawks are much better at closing out on shooters and are seventh-best at defending the three and 13th in effective field goal percentage allowed. The Nets, on the other hand, finished 23rd in three-point field goal percentage against and 24th in eFG% allowed.

The Brooklyn Nets will have to play near-perfect basketball in order to hold any pretensions of sending the series back to Atlanta, before talk of potential upsets begins. The Hawks’ inauspicious finish to the season might not initially inspire confidence, but they remain (more or less) the same team just months removed from a 19-game winning streak and a 31-2 run through the December and January section of their schedule. The only hesitation, and possible sliver of an opening for Brooklyn, is the injury absence of backup wing Thabo Sefolosha and starting power forward Paul Millsap’s recently injured shoulder (suffered in the first half of April 4th’s game against the Nets but from which he returned in Game 82). Going by our staff predictions, though, none of us seem too concerned for Atlanta in this opening round series.

Alan Anderson will be available for Brooklyn after missing the final seven games of the season with an ankle sprain, as will, incredibly, Mirza Teletovic. Their return will help the Nets’ depth and spacing at the forward spots, and avoid having to depend on the rookies to defend on the perimeter. Mirza’s presence alone should amp up the Barclays Center crowd in Saturday’s Game Three, whether or not he returns to the court for the first time since being diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs back in January. I will be rooting feverishly for a Mirza/Mike Scott bench-power forward shootout at some point in this Brooklyn/Atlanta first-round playoff series.

To provide some context and a closer perspective on the Atlanta Hawks and their playoff upside, we’re very fortunate to welcome Jeff Siegel and Buddy Grizzard of HawksHoop to this playoff edition of the Three Man Weave. They’ll be joined by Josh Koebert of Brooklyn’s Finest to answer three questions concerning the Atlanta Hawks and their season splits, possible weaknesses, and championship aspirations. Thanks, as always, to our panel of experts and readers for a solid season of the 3MW.

1.) After beginning the season 40-8, the Atlanta Hawks proceeded to go 20-14 over their final three months while finishing comfortably as the Eastern Conference’s number one seed. Is there anything to read into the team’s struggles in the second half, particularly on the defensive end in February and March, or do you expect the Hawks to play closer to their December/January (even April) pace in the postseason? How important is a healthy Paul Millsap to the Hawks again reaching that level of play?

Jeff Siegel: I’m not worried at all about the 20-14 finish to the season. When the Heat finished 17-10 going into the 2012 playoffs, Tom Haberstroh wrote a piece about how momentum entering the playoffs has no correlation to postseason success and that we just think it does because we’re prisoners of the moment. The only thing about the last 34 games that worries me is the injury to Thabo Sefolosha; Atlanta’s defensive rating plummets 7.1 points per 100 possessions, per His ability to come off the bench and shut down an opponent’s best perimeter player is something upon which the Hawks have relied all year. Kent Bazemore will try to fill that role, but the Hawks defense actually gets better when Bazemore sits despite his reputation as a solid defender and energy guy.

Buddy Grizzard: Thabo Sefolosha, out for the series with a broken leg and ligament damage, is irreplaceable. He’s 23rd in the NBA in defensive Real Plus-Minus per, the only Hawk in the top 50. The next-highest-rated guard or wing for the Hawks is Kyle Korver (87th). Kent Bazemore, the reserve who will play a lot of the minutes Sefolosha would have played, is ranked 156th. DeMarre Carroll, considered Atlanta’s principal defensive stopper, is ranked 206th. Irreplaceable.

Another part of Atlanta’s midseason lull was the play of Pero Antić. The latter went into the playoffs last season still recovering from a stress fracture in his ankle. As a result, Antić shot 16.7% from the field and 12% from 3-point range in the Pacers series. Despite the horrific shooting, the defensive impact of Antić is such that he somehow contrived to have the best aggregate plus-minus (plus-29) for the Hawks for the series.

In February, Antić again dealt with ankle issues and shot 20% from the field and 13% from 3-point range. Since March 1st, Antić shot 39% from the floor and 34% from three. If Antić shoots anywhere near 30% from 3-point range in the Nets series, it will force one of Brooklyn’s big men to come out and guard him, opening up driving lanes for Atlanta’s lightening-quick point guards.

Injuries to Paul Millsap and backup Mike Scott will bear watching. Millsap looked rusty in his one game back against the Bulls. Scott suffered a bruised back in a fall against the Knicks in the second-to-last game of the season.

The extra minutes at power forward allowed Mike Muscala to close on a tear, averaging nine points and three rebounds on 69% shooting in 23.6 minutes per game in April. Since March 27th, Muscala is 8-for-16 (50%) from 3-point range. Nevertheless, Muscala remains an unproven former second-round pick.

Josh KoebertI think it was more a case of the Hawks being so far in front of the field that they all sort of adopted a Pop attitude to conserve energy for the playoffs than any kind of inherent weakness. I’m expecting the crazy good Hawks again. But Millsap being healthy will be huge, as this is a team filled with *almost* stars, where the sum of the parts is greater than the individual pieces, so they need everyone at their best.

2.) In what area(s) are the Hawks vulnerable, and is there a chance Brooklyn can take advantage to steal a couple of games in this series?

Siegel: Joe Johnson may be a thorn in Atlanta’s side for one or two games, but the most important matchup in this series happens down on the block. The Hawks’ vulnerability on the glass has been well documented and it will be interesting to see how much Lionel Hollins has his bigs crash the offensive glass, as opposed to getting back on defense and stopping the Hawks in transition. Kyle Korver has been lethal this season, finishing in the 96th percentile in points per possession in transition, and most of the players above him are big men who get mostly dunks on the break. If the Nets decide to blitz the offensive glass when Korver is on the bench, it could spell trouble for Atlanta’s undersized bigs. Pero Antic will be key if Brook Lopez and company are beating up the Hawks on the boards; Atlanta’s defensive rebounding rate jumps from 72.2% with Antic on the bench to 76.9% with him on the court, a mark that would be good for fifth in the league over a full season. Antic’s personal 14.1% DRB% doesn’t blow you away, but the team clearly improves with him on the floor and he may be needed to do some of the dirty work that doesn’t always show up on the box score.

Grizzard: Brooklyn is a team of veterans and former All-Stars that can absolutely challenge the Hawks in this series. If coach Mike Budenholzer is forced to play Muscala significant minutes, look for Brook Lopez to have a field day. He’s a promising young player but he’s in no way equipped to guard one of the league’s best interior offensive players.

Antić has the foot speed and strength to guard Lopez, but if his shot goes on hiatus again, Budenholzer may not be able to keep him on the floor. The venerable Elton Brand was minus-19 per 48 minutes in the Pacers series, so look for the Nets to go on a run any time he sees the floor.

Koebert: I think the biggest vulnerability, honestly, is the lack of a world-beating superstar, the kind of guy that can take over if it’s tight. It’s why I think if the Nets do steal a game it will be on the back of either Joe Johnson or Deron.

3.) How/when/by whose hands does Atlanta’s season end? What’s their playoff ceiling?

Siegel: To me, there’s very little chance of Atlanta losing a seven-game series to any team in the East other than Cleveland. If by some miracle the Bulls beat the Cavs in the second round, the Hawks would have a fantastic chance of making the NBA Finals for the first time since the 1961 St. Louis Hawks. If the defense gets rolling like it was during January, then there’s no reason Atlanta can’t beat whoever comes out of the West, though they have to be the least likely to win it all out of the big four contenders. That said, I have the Cavs beating the Hawks in 6 in the Eastern Conference Finals, which would still make for a great season. DeMarre Carroll may have trouble guarding Joe Johnson in this first-round series with the Nets, but LeBron James is a completely different challenge.

Grizzard: Judging by the head-to-head match-ups this season, I expect the Hawks to beat the Nets comfortably (4-1). If Lionel Hollins continues to insist on playing Deron Williams and Jarrett Jack together, it will be an especially short series.

As far as the team’s ceiling, Budenholzer made the questionable decision to rest his starters in the fourth quarter of the finale against a Bulls team Atlanta has dominated. Tom Thibodeau put his starters back in against Atlanta’s third string to secure the win and the third playoff seed. As a result, the Hawks may face a Toronto team in the second round that has had its number all season.

Toronto, like the Hawks, closed poorly and may not make it past the Wizards in the first round. That would be a favorable result for the Hawks since the Wizards have been among the league’s least-impressive teams against playoff-bound competition. The Hawks have never won a second-round playoff series in 47 years since the franchise relocated from St. Louis. If the Hawks can make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, I give the team even odds against the Cavaliers and any team that comes out of the West except the Warriors and Spurs.

Koebert: Honestly, if the Cavs hadn’t figured their stuff out in that bowling alley, I think these Hawks could have gotten honorably slaughtered in the NBA Finals by [insert insanely good Western Conference team here]. As it stands, I see them losing to Cleveland in the East Final.