The Return of Mirza Teletovic and Other Game 2 Adjustments

The Brooklyn Nets entered Game 2 against the Atlanta Hawks looking to make adjustments after a seven-point loss in Game 1 that saw their starting center shoot just seven times and the team shoot 5/20 from the three-point line. The Nets shot a bit better from deep (8/26) in their 91-96 Game 2 defeat, looking more comfortable finding open perimeter spots against Atlanta’s defense and getting Brook Lopez more involved offensively. (17 field goal attempts). But perhaps the biggest, most tangible adjustment for the Brooklyn Nets came in the return of Mirza Teletovic to the basketball court three months to the day that his season was initially ruled over.

In a January 22nd visit to Los Angeles to play the Clippers, Teletovic left the game after experiencing a shortness of breath and was later diagnosed with “bilateral pulmonary embolus (multiple blood clots in the lungs)” at a local hospital. Mirza began working out in non-basketball activities come February and targeted an optimistic return in mid-July once he was taken off the blood-thinning medication, until his doctors allowed him to practice with the team in recent weeks. He participated in five practice sessions before Lionel Hollins removed him from the inactive list and inserted him into Wednesday’s Game 2 for just under four minutes of court time.

Teletovic went 0/2 from the field (both three-point attempts) with two rebounds, a turnover, and a -2 in his 3:50 of action, largely sharing the frontcourt with Brook Lopez. In his first possession since January, he stretched the sagging Hawks defense on a Deron Williams post-up and caught the kick-out pass to swing to Bojan Bogdanovic in the corner. Bojan missed the shot, but Paul Millsap would be reluctant to leave Mirza in the corner on the next opportunity and Deron pushed the ball for a layup. Teletovic even awkwardly stood in on a pseudo-charge/block non-call on a Jeff Teague drive and collected the rebound, then lackadaisically threw the outlet pass away which led to a Kyle Korver catch-and-shoot three.

His first shot attempt came from Joe Johnson’s penetration off the pick-and-roll and just rimmed out. Paul Millsap got caught over-helping on Johnson but was bailed out by the miss, and went back at Teletovic on the next possession that resulted in a jab-step, fall-back jumper (which knocked Mirza badly off-balance) that was also off-target. Teletovic managed to stay with him on a high-screen a couple of plays later and played his own pick-and-roll game with Deron in which he caught the end-around pass and swung it to Joe Johnson open in the corner (and with Pero Antić closing).

Teletovic’s second shift late in the third quarter was considerably shorter, due mostly to a couple of defensive miscues that led to good looks for his Hawks counterpart, “The Regional Manager” Mike Scott. Mirza kept up with Scott through two pick-and-roll attempts to begin, but ball-watched and lost his man on the along the perimeter. Scott’s three doubled the lead, and Mirza was unable to match it after Joe Johnson posted up and drew the defense to the middle on the ensuing end. On his third and final play he got hung up on a Pero Antić down-screen and let Scott get another open shot from beyond the arc, and a foul on the rebound ended his night.

Still, despite his struggles, Mirza Teletovic offered some positives to the Nets’ offense and especially their spacing from the backup power forward position. He took his two jumpers in about four minutes and had two assist opportunities on skip passes from the perimeter in his first quarter run alone, and just the threat of his range kept the defense honest enough for a Deron layup to slip through. His three-point stroke had largely disappeared in his 40 games this season, with a 32.1%-mark on almost five attempts per game (down from 39% in 2013-14 on 349 total shots), but he was still a valuable spacing threat for a team bereft of outside options.

The Nets are hoping Teletovic can bring that gravity to this series, with the Hawks yet to deviate from their “leave shooters” strategy that they’ve employed all season. Brooklyn is slowly adjusting to the Hawks’ perimeter rotations, improving their team three-point proficiency by 5% over Game 1 and finding open shooters when Atlanta’s defense again collapsed around Brook Lopez pick-and-rolls. An18-8 surge in the fourth brought the lead to a single point with 45.5 seconds remaining, prompted primarily off of some extra passing and timely takes to the basket.

Brook Lopez would have been the biggest beneficiary of an improved three-point attack, though he took on a larger role in Game 2 despite Brooklyn’s poor shooting. He stepped out for two long jumpers that trimmed the lead to seven upon each make, then received an entry pass to the post for what seemed like the first time in the 2015 playoffs. Antić went down and Joe Johnson tossed up a wedgie after Brook kicked it out to the three-point line for the catch-and-shoot. Good process, at least, in working inside-out to generate jumpers.

Much like in the second half of Game 1, the Hawks began sending weak-side help defenders to the middle on Brook Lopez pick-and-roll dives. On a made Jarrett Jack corner-three around the two-minute-mark, Joe Johnson wisely used his body to shield his defender (DeMarre Carroll) and keep his dribble alive to prevent Al Horford from leaving him completely off the screen, and delivered the pass to the corner. Kyle Korver cheats too far over in helping on Lopez and isn’t able to recover in time on the three-ball, while Jack’s 23rd point cut the deficit to one.

The Nets relied more on the outside shot in Game 2, as only 41.8% of their offense came from the paint compared to 58.7% in their opening matchup. As a result, the teams’ assist total went up not only due to the increase in three-point attempts - of which all eight made shots were assisted - but also thanks to a 14-point rise in percentage of assisted twos (to 55.6% of all made two-point field goals). Turnovers have remained an issue (16 in Game 2, 17 in Game 1) because of the Hawks’ defensive mobility and their pack-the-paint approach, which has caused the Nets to force more cross-court skips and shy away from Brook Lopez pocket-passes off the pick.

There could be a chance we don’t see a single Lopez flick-shot/post-P&R-runner all series, which would have seemed unfathomable a month ago when he won back-to-back Player of the Week awards. He’s such a skilled scorer that he can simply rely on other tricks in his arsenal to drop 20, and although he again finished fifth on the team in total touches, the Nets did a better job of finding him around the basket for more scoring opportunities. Brook will score - even if he goes through another Game 1 scenario where he has to hit the offensive boards for easy baskets - and his north/south rim-rolls should continue to suck in the Hawks defense and free up shooters.

If the Nets can take a game in this first-round series, they might have to do it from the three-point line. Through the first two games they have a clear edge in field goal percentage - 45.2% to Atlanta’s 40.8% - but trail in three-point accuracy - 28.3% to 36.1%. The Nets have made 13 total shots from beyond the arc while Kyle Korver has eight alone, and the next-highest Net is either Bojan Bogdanovic at 3/11 or Joe Johnson’s 3/14. Lionel Hollins has already re-visited Johnson at power forward in quicker lineups that, predictably, increase the shooting efficiency and pace, but at the expense of rebounding.

The answer going forward in this series is, as always, more Mirza. Teletovic solves multiple issues for the Nets by shooting solely from three (63% of his career shot attempts have come from behind the arc) and rebounding the basketball (career 11.6 rebound percentage, according to Basketball-Reference) off the bench, and could open up a lot of room for whichever center - Brook or Mason - plays next to him.

The downside, even when healthy and in shape, is his alertness and lateral quickness on the defensive end, to say nothing to his individual adjustment curve in returning to the court and against the Atlanta Hawks. However, even if he improves his playing time in Game 3 all the way up to five minutes, the Barclays Center crowd should respond anytime he touches the ball or launches from deep, and make it loud for the Hawks.

Whether Mirza Teletovic can regain his shooting touch and stamina, and play significant minutes to help the Brooklyn Nets prolong their first-round playoff series is almost an afterthought to his return to the court and from a potentially life-threatening medical situation. Hopefully Mirza can play well and the Nets take a game or two in Brooklyn, but that the injury situation doesn’t re-occur or hamper his earning potential this summer in free agency, when he inevitably re-signs with the team.

His skills seem tailor-made for the Hawks and this kind of series (ball-swings to open threes), and it’s only natural to wonder where the Nets would be at this point in the season had Mirza never bruised his hip back in early-December (maybe as high as seventh in the East!). Mirza Teletovic’s return to the rotation will present another adjustment for Lionel Hollins as the Nets return to Brooklyn for Games 3 and 4, but one that should help the team adjust to the open three-point looks from the Atlanta Hawks defense.