We have a series.
That is the general sentiment on the heels of the Brooklyn Nets triumph in Game 4, and the Atlanta Hawks suddenly have their backs agains the wall in a 2-2 first round series. The general consensus (including in this space) prior to the series reflected that Atlanta would only need a maximum of five games to dispatch of the Nets, but Brooklyn has been much better than advertised and the Hawks have not achieved their maximum level of play for more than brief stretches of time.
Game 4 was a bit of an outlier on all counts. Deron Williams went supernova, the Hawks (yes, the Hawks) dominated the glass, and Brooklyn collectively knocked down 14 threes against just 10 turnovers. Some of that, of course, is that Lionel Hollins' team looks vastly different than we expected, whipping the ball around with crisp movement and real energy. However, the flip side of that is that Atlanta's bench has been non-existent in the series, Paul Millsap and Al Horford appear limited, and the offense has not rediscovered its high-end form from previous months.
That brings us to Game 5, and there are many, many things to focus on before Wednesday. We'll keep it brief here, starting with the aforementioned duo of Millsap and Horford. With an ear to the ground nationally following Game 4, there has been a lot of chatter about the limited nature of both players right now, though it should be noted that the two combined for 33 points, 19 rebounds and better than 50% shooting in Game 4.
In Horford's case, he simply doesn't appear to be the same aggressive force since injuring his finger earlier in the series, and the once-lethal midrange jump shot has deserted him, at least from a confidence standpoint. Millsap is clearly battling (he played nearly 47 minutes in Game 4), but the All-Star forward has leaned heavily on his left hand when shooting around the rim, which some have taken as an indication of a less-than-healthy right shoulder.
Beyond Horford and Millsap, who will also be tasked with attempting to slow Brook Lopez, the Hawks must get an improved effort from the bench. The struggles of Dennis Schröder (covered in full here) have been the main focus of many, but the absence of Thabo Sefolosha has been felt in a big way, with Kent Bazemore struggling to produce level-headed play and a defensive group that desperately needs the steadying influence of Sefolosha. Pero Antic has been competent and Mike Scott is, well, Mike Scott, but at home, it would be nice to see a significant bump from the reserves.
That brings us to the offensive end as a whole. The Hawks are scoring just 99.0 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs, which isn't disastrous but far from ideal. That is accompanied by a subpar 50.9% true shooting, and that is achieved by missing shots that this team has made all season. However, the problems are deeper than that, as the Nets have exploited Atlanta's offense at times, with Budenholzer leaning on Kyle Korver in crunch time as the team stagnates in its traditionally open-minded nature.
Simply put, a positive sign from the offense is something that would be comforting. The Atlanta Hawks are better, on the whole, than the Brooklyn Nets, but if the underdogs manage to turn the series into a battle of individual match-ups, the playing field is leveled considerably. Deron Williams isn't the player that he was in Game 4 (by any stretch), but Brook Lopez almost certainly is the player that we've seen to this point and old pal Joe Johnson is capable of winning his individual battle as well.
The 2014-2015 Hawks are in this position because of their team-based principles, executed throughout the season. Mike Budenholzer repeatedly used the word "excited" when addressing the media on Tuesday about the team's prospects, and we'll see if his players share that excitement and, dare I say with the permission of Larry Drew, energy on Wednesday night. Stay tuned.