How the Nets Can Win Game 6

The Brooklyn Nets will enter Friday’s Game 6 against the Atlanta Hawks on the precipice of playoff elimination, but still with a legitimate chance to topple the Eastern Conference’s top-seeded team. The two victories in Brooklyn in Games 3 and 4 altered the tone of the series and the Nets’ playoff upside, in hanging with the spacing and shooting of the Hawks and holding a (slim) 394-393 edge in scoring after four games. Game 5 in Atlanta was no different, as Al Horford’s 20 points, 15 rebounds, and five assists led the Hawks to a 3-2 series advantage and a 10-point victory, but Brooklyn’s bench duo of Jarrett Jack and Alan Anderson combined for 41 points (on 24 shots) and it was a one-point game as late as the 4:41-mark of the fourth quarter.

Game 6 returns to the Barclays Center Friday night for an 8:00 pm (EST), ESPN tip-off, before a potential Game 7 situation Sunday afternoon at 1 pm in Atlanta. Two weeks ago, the very concept of a Nets/Hawks Game 7 seemed ridiculous, and a sweep appeared to be the far more likely outcome. Even down 3-2, though, the Brooklyn Nets remain in position to force a deciding seventh game and even, potentially, a series upset, given some continued strong play, adjustments on the part of players and coaches, and just a little bit of luck.

At the top of any list of Nets adjustments and things to go right is that Brooklyn’s “Big 3” of Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson, and Deron Williams must play well for the team to succeed. It’s true, if a bit simplistic, that the team’s highest-paid players need to step up to lead the team in scoring, but as David Vertsberger pointed out in his Game 5 review, “Game 4 Deron was a fluke.” Expecting another 35-point, seven-assist, five-rebound performance from Deron is too unrealistic of an adjustment to even make our cut. Instead, here are some specifics as to how the Nets can overcome their 3-2 series deficit, alternating between defense and offense.

1.) Maintain effort and communication on defense, particularly on Kyle Korver.

As Kyle Korver plays well in this series, so do the Hawks. In the three Atlanta wins Korver has shot the three-pointer at a 43.3% clip (13/30), compared to 22.2% (4/18) in the two losses. Nets head coach Lionel Hollins began the series with his regular season starter at shooting guard, rookie Markel Brown, but played him just 5:35 in Game 1 and not at all since. Fellow rookie Bojan Bogdanovic has started every game since and kept up surprisingly well on Korver’s forays through screens, thanks to some help from his teammates.

Korver’s activity on offense has drawn the appropriate attention from the Nets’ D, at least since he led the Hawks in scoring in the opening game of the series. In the ensuing four games, the Nets have been more willing to switch the coverage when Bojan or Alan Anderson get caught on down screens, or to communicate with help defenders to step in and body Korver on his curls if they’re running a step behind the play. The help has allowed Nets’ perimeter defenders to pick their spots when chasing Korver back-and-forth along the baseline, and his weaker off-the-dribble game prevents him from beating the switch in isolation once they shut off his catch-and-shoot option.

The switching allows the Nets to throw some different looks at Atlanta and vary their coverages a bit. In this Game 3 example (below), Hawks point guard Dennis Schröder turns the corner on an Al Horford screen and draws Brook Lopez’s attention as he goes towards the basket. On the weak (off-ball) side of the floor, Bogdanovic follows Korver as he circles around the baseline and sets a back-screen/hug on Joe Johnson, to spring Mike Scott in the corner (also known as the “Hammer”-set). Bojan sniffs out Schröder’s intentions and leaves Korver to Johnson, and steps out to intercept the pass to the corner. Atlanta tries to use Korver’s attention against the Nets, but Bojan makes a nice read and trusts Johnson to stay with his man on the switch.

The downside to switching on a consistent basis is the predictability and high-variance nature, as the slightest misstep in communicating between defenders can result in a blown coverage and wide-open shot opportunity. The Hawks have run Kyle Korver through thousands of screens this season and are quite familiar with how to get him open off-ball, but also to recognize when the defense overloads on the cut and when their bigs should slip the screen.

Here, DeMarre Carroll passes to the point guard at the top of the key and motions to set a down-screen for Korver on the left side of the court. Joe Johnson switches onto Korver but Bojan hesitates for a second on picking up Joe’s action, and Carroll fakes the screen for an easy layup on the cut. (Nice pass by Teague too, but get those hands up, Deron!)

2.) Finding Atlanta’s cheat-man and locating open shot attempts on the perimeter.

The Atlanta Hawks are not afraid to be beaten from the three-point line. No team allowed more regular season three-point attempts than the Hawks, but only six teams were stingier in three-point percentage defended. Against a Nets team hasn’t shot the ball well or often from deep all season, Atlanta has barely respected their outside shot. Of greater importance to the Hawks’ defense has been shutting down Brooklyn’s screen-and-roll game, especially Brook Lopez’s running jumper off the catch, and they haven’t been shy about shading extra defenders on the center’s rolls down the lane.

As I wrote about after Game 1, Atlanta varied their high-screen coverage and sent help defenders from different spots on the floor to bother Lopez. Throughout the first half it was the closest Hawk called to help, but as the game progressed Atlanta began cheating off of corner shooters and daring the Nets to swing the ball all the way around the perimeter to find the open shot. Brook Lopez eased a lot of pressure on the Nets’ offense in Game 4 by catching the ball in the lane and swinging to the opposite side of the court (even eliciting a Boris Diaw/Spurs comparison from the venerable Zach Lowe), and Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Johnson, and a scorching-hot Deron Williams provided the ball-handling and shot-making threats from all spots on the floor.

Atlanta’s natural inclination is to speed up the game on the defensive end, by utilizing their mobile defenders in space and in some sideline traps. Both Al Horford and Pero Antic are quick enough to blitz pick-and-rolls past the three-point line and still recover in the event of any ball swings, much as Atlanta’s perimeter defenders are trusted to sag off of the three-point line and close out on shooters. An aggressive, or even patient, ball-handler can beat the Hawks’ traps and find numbers underneath the basket or on the opposite side, and the Nets have largely prevented Atlanta from trapping on a consistent basis.

There have been exceptions, obviously, like in this Joe Johnson sequence early in Game 4 where he picks up his dribble early and is done in by the Teague/Horford swarm. His tipped pass stays in-bounds and leads to a pull-up three on the fast break from Kyle Korver, which feeds perfectly into the Hawks’ desire to force turnovers on D that leads to quick offense. The turnover is relatively atypical for Johnson, who has demonstrated such patience in keeping his dribble alive off the high screen and putting his defender on his hip to probe the defense.

When the Nets turn the ball over more than Atlanta in this series, they’ve lost. In three defeats they’ve committed 45 turnovers compared to 33 for the Hawks, but in two victories hold a 24-31 edge. They’ll need to move the ball quickly against Atlanta in Game 6 and reverse court once the Hawks start sending help to the strong-side on any pick-and-rolls, by avoiding cross-court passes which can lead to open-court turnovers. Keeping a designated catch-and-swing man at the top of the key can help to move the ball to the open shooters in the corner, or by feeding Brook Lopez off the screen and then allowing him to make the next decision against a scrambling defense. Brooklyn has shot considerably better from the corners in their two wins (8/18, 44.4%) than in their three losses (8/24, 33.3%), and it could be up to Lopez to again channel his inner Boris Diaw to open up the Nets’ spacing and use Atlanta’s aggressiveness against them.

3.) Defensive rebounding.

In what looked to be an advantage for Brooklyn in the series, the Atlanta Hawks have generally hung with the Nets on the boards, posting a +6 advantage in total rebounds that’s inflated by Game 4’s 55-40 edge. But as the Nets have limited the Hawks’ shooting in the two games in Brooklyn - 30.1% (19/63) from deep in Games 3 and 4, and 37.2% (35/94) in Games 1, 2, and 5 - the Hawks have hit the offensive boards to get baskets. Atlanta has either tied or led the Nets in offensive rebounding in the last four games, and posted a series-high 18 in Game 4. DeMarre Carroll was responsible for seven alone in Game 4, and scored 20 points on 8/15 shooting (including 4/5 from deep) to help send the game into overtime.

As Brooklyn keeps trending smaller in their lineups, Carroll has submitted three-consecutive 20+-point games, while playing his trademark physical defense on Joe Johnson and finishing from beyond the arc or at the rim after playing decoy out of bounds. Brook Lopez has done his part on the glass, in averaging 9.4 rebounds per game this series, but Nets head coach Lionel Hollins has buried backup center Mason Plumlee on the bench, with Plum having played around 15 minutes in the last three games. To his credit, Hollins has not shied away from experimenting with his second unit in the playoffs, while acknowledging that the threat of Atlanta Hacking-a-Plumlee made his re-insertion in Game 5 potentially “detrimental.”

4.) Small ball.

Without Plumlee to bolster the bench frontcourt, Hollins has gone outside-the-box a bit, in going to the 6’8” Thaddeus Young as his second-unit center for a two-minute stretch at the end of the third quarter of Game 5. The run produced a -4, according to Basketball-Reference’s charting, and was highlighted by some lackadaisical defense on a Dennis Schröder drive off the pick-and-roll (below). Young looks visibly confused as to his responsibilities on the play, but his decision to stay with Pero Antic on the arc left Jarrett Jack in trouble on Schröder, and led to some Jack slumped shoulders on the inbound. Single-game plus/minus isn’t always a great stat, and it wasn’t particularly kind to Thaddeus Young in Game 5 with a -27 in just under 25 minutes of play.

As a result, Lionel Hollins countered Atlanta’s starters to begin the fourth quarter with lineups featuring Joe Johnson at the power forward position, flanked by Lopez in the frontcourt. The lineup finished the game with a +2 differential, and Johnson kept up with Paul Millsap on the perimeter while scoring 10 points in the final quarter. His ball-handling helped to compensate for Deron Williams’s struggles (five points on eight shots) and absence down the stretch, and his spacing from the perimeter gave Jarrett Jack ample room to pull up with his jumper and score 12 points in the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter.

With Atlanta threatening to trap on the perimeter and cheating off of the weak-side corner, lineups with Johnson at the four in place of Thaddeus Young give the Nets better spacing and ball-handling options, if at the expense of defensive rebounding. In a pivotal Game 6, Lionel Hollins could go to his small-ball lineup at the first sign of trouble, to generate offense and open up the court.

5.) Going under screens on Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder.

Teague and Schröder are Atlanta’s two energizers from the point guard position, who are responsible for instituting the quicker pace the team needs to achieve optimal ball movement. In Game 4’s recap I mentioned Teague’s “pestering the Nets’ defense in transition”, by constantly probing on the fast break for any openings at the rim. The second-year Schröder plays at an even more chaotic pace and is prone to bouts of bad decision making at age-21, but Atlanta’s second unit feeds off of his transition pushes and pick-and-roll game with Pero. Likewise with Teague and the starting unit, from the pick-and-pops with Horford or Millsap to the spot-up opportunities for Carroll or Korver. Keeping Teague out of the paint and from turning the corner on the pick-and-roll could be as important to the Nets’ defense as staying with Korver off-ball, especially considering the Nets’ difficulties in defending athleticism all season. To keep him from drawing help and collapsing for shooters, the Nets point guards need to go under screens on Teague and especially Schröder, who has yet to establish a consistent three-point jump shot. Jeff Teague is a career 34.1% three-point shooter in his six-year career, but the Nets might have to live with his open jumpers on the perimeter, over the damage he can do to their defense closer to the basket. Brook Lopez has a tough assignment in sticking with Al Horford on his high screens and pick-and-pops and isn’t able to help Brooklyn point guards over the top on screens, and is best at playing back as guards funnel drives into his large paws. Teague destroyed the Nets in the fourth quarter of Game 5 by pulling up for three (as the Nets went under on the screen) and then crossing over and unleashing his runner in the lane, and is capable of taking over a game regardless of the opposing defense. Jarrett Jack tried going over the top of Al Horford’s screen in the final minute of Game 5, but Teague still slipped through the hand-check to get into the paint and flash the floater to seal the game for the Hawks. Given Brooklyn’s personnel - and with Markel Brown relegated to the bench - there might not be a convenient tactic to slow Jeff Teague, but going under on his high screens and forcing him to launch from three could present the Nets’ best course of action.

Even after all of these adjustments for the Brooklyn Nets, there’s still a good chance that the superior talent level and regular season track record of the Atlanta Hawks propels them to a double-digit blowout victory at the Barclays Center. But I’ve been saying that for the last three games now, and ever since Game 3 I’ve been impressed with the Nets’ resolve and resiliency in refusing to go silently into their 2015 offseason. Regardless of what happens in Friday’s Game 6, the Brooklyn Nets have proven that they can hang with one of the regular season’s most dominant teams, and have prolonged their season by playing quality, team-oriented basketball, for the second-straight postseason.