The regular season is over and the NBA Playoffs are finally here. After a sterling start to the season it was a bit of a lull for the Atlanta Hawks coming down the stretch of the regular season. That lull has cast some doubt in the minds of many as to whether or not the Hawks are truly deserving of the East's No. 1 seed.
Atlanta's worth will no doubt be determined by their success in the post season. After all 60 regular season wins won't mean much without a deep playoff run. Up first for the Hawks is the Brooklyn Nets who at 38-44, limped their way into the final playoff spot. Brooklyn however has a team filled with veterans and an experienced coach, but can they pose a formidable challenge to the Hawks?
Here is a position by position look at the first round matchup:
The point guards for the Hawks and the Nets in many ways have defined their team's success. Atlanta posesses a solid one-two punch in Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder. Teague put together an All-Star season but his production slowed a bit coming down the stretch. The Hawks will need him to once again pick up his play during the playoffs.
Teague and Schröder's penetration will be important to the Hawks who bombed away from three-point range against the Nets during the regular season. Atlanta averaged 32 three-point attempts a game against Brooklyn and converted on 37 percent of those opportunities. The Nets may very well make a more concerted effort to run the Hawks off of the three-point line but that will be more difficult to do with Teague and Schröder on the attack.
For the Nets, Deron Williams picked up his play somewhat down the stretch and that helped Brooklyn reach the playoffs. Still he figures to have his hands full trying to keep up with the speed and quickness of Teague and Schröder. Backup Jarrett Jack actually had better numbers against the Hawks during the regular season and will be interesting to see if Hollins sticks with Williams if he struggles.
Probably enough can't be said about Kyle Korver and the importance his three-point shooting has on Atlanta's offense. Often times his presense alone is enough to get his teammates good looks on the offensive end. Korver averaged just 10.8 points in the four meetings with the Nets but coverted on 13-21 three point attempts. He doesn't need much of a look to make opposing teams pay and it is likely that he will draw a lot of attention from Brooklyn's defense.
When teams have overplayed Korver, Atlanta has done a good job of making them pay. The beauty of Atlanta's system is that there is a counter to every action and often times it is just a matter of the players reading the situation correctly and executing.
Hollins inserted rookie Markel Brown into the Nets' starting lineup in February. He didn't put up a lot of numbers but brought some needed athleticism to the lineup. With Alan Anderson listed as questionable for Game 1, Hollins may be forced to mix and match while trying to slow down Korver.
I shouldn't have to remind Hawks fans of how much of a gifted scorer Nets small forward Joe Johnson is. Often times it seems people stop at Johnson's contract when evaluating him. Joe struggled down the stretch of the regular season and averaged just 10.8 points per game in April while playing more than 34 minutes a night. He shot just 42 percent from the field and 31 percent from three-point range.
Despite his recent struggles, Johnson will be a huge part of Brooklyn's offense. During the regular season we saw Johnson as a spot up shooter but Hollins also used him in the post which many times forced the Hawks into a quick double team and subesquent rotations on the perimeter. I will talk more about pace a bit later but Johnson's game is a shining example of why the Hawks can't afford to play at a snails pace. Brooklyn doesn't want to run with the Hawks and would be well served to walk the ball up and dump the ball into Johnson in the post and play off of that.
DeMarre Carroll is one of the unsung heroes of the Hawks' season. He was the lone starter not to make the All-Star team but with Thabo Sefolosha out for the remainder of the season, Carroll may truly be the most important player on the roster. Carroll goes into each and every game knowing that he will be matched up against the opponent's most talented scorer. He has guarded quick point guards, shooting guards, bruising small forwards and even power forwards this season all while not backing down.
While defense is clearly his calling card, his offensive game will present problems for the Nets. Carroll shot a career-best 39 percent from three-point range this season. The more he can make Johnson work on the defensive end the better it will be for the Hawks.
If the Hawks have a question mark coming into their first round series it is at power forward with the health of Paul Millsap who missed five of the last six games with a shoulder strain that interestingly enough was suffered in a win over the Nets.
Millsap returned for the regular season finale and was predictably rusty with his shot. He admitted that the shoulder was still sore following the game but acknowledged that he would probably be dealing with soreness for the remainder of the season.
His health is paramount to the Hawks as his versatility of operating in the post combined with the ability to stretch out to the three-point line puts a ton of pressure on opposing defenses. More so, Millsap's ability as a rebounder and defender will be important in the series against Brooklyn.
The Nets trading for Thaddeus Young at the deadline improved their frontline and no doubt aided their quest for the playoffs. Young performed well against Atlanta during the season averaging 16.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists in four games against the Hawks with the Nets and the Timberwolves. Young grabbed 32 rebounds against Atlanta of which 17 were offensive. Keeping him off the offensive glass will be a priority for Atlanta in the series.
A lot of people will point to the matchup at point guard or at center as the matchups to watch in this series. I am circling the matchup at power forward with Young as the key matchup.
While I'm focusing on the matchup at power forward, that doesn't mean the center matchup won't be a good one. Al Horford's return to health has been one of several key factors in Atlanta's emergence. Brook Lopez's re-emergence for the Nets is probably the biggest reason they find themselves in the playoffs.
At one point this season, Lopez was out of Brooklyn's starting lineup and was on the verge of being traded at the deadline. They reluctantly held onto him but the move paid off as Lopez averaged more than 20 points and nine rebounds over the final two months of the season.
Horford's numbers may be a bit modest and undersell his value to the team. He is Atlanta's quarterback defensively and his versatility will be a tough matchup for Lopez. He shot 61 percent from the field during the regular season against Brooklyn and his ability to pull Lopez away from the basket should open up driving lanes for Teague and Schröder.
Atlanta's bench took a significant hit with the loss of Thabo Sefolosha who would have given Mike Budenholzer another defensive option to throw at Joe Johnson. Kent Bazemore will likely assume that role but he doesn't really have the size to defend Johnson in the post and the Hawks will have to adjust accordingly in those situations. Atlanta's bench has been underestimated by many throughout the season. In addition to Schröder, guys like Mike Scott, Shelvin Mack and even Pero Antic have shown the ability to contribute positively throughout the season.
Bojan Bogdanovic was in the Nets' starting lineup early in the season but has been a key weapon offensively off the bench of late. He finished with 28 points and led the comeback in Wednesday's win over the Magic which helped put Brooklyn in the playoffs.
The coaching matchup in this series will be an interesting contrast of styles. While Mike Budenholzer embraces the pace and space system, Hollins seems to be holding on to the basketball ideals of yesterday. There will be many chances to watch the Hawks work for shots through crisp passing and player movement. There will also be many opportunities to watch the Nets clear the floor and iso or dump the ball in the post to Johnson, Lopez or even Williams.
Both tactics have had success throughout history, although the latter has struggled in recent seasons. I have alluded to pace in several of the individual matchups and that will be a key for the Hawks in the playoffs. Atlanta was by no means the highest pace team in the league but they are clearly at their best when the game is moving at a good pace. That means setting the tone early by flying around on defense and pushing the basketball up the court at every opportunity.
This matchup comes down to this. The Nets are bigger and slower. The Hawks are smaller, quicker and probably at this point more skilled. The team that more successfully dictates the pace will most likely be the one that wins the series.