When 18 basketball analysts from CBS Sports and ESPN unanimously predict a team will make it through its first-round playoff matchup — and just three predict the series to last longer than five games — chances are mostly everyone thinks the series will be a landslide. Sunday was anything but for the Atlanta Hawks, who held on for a 99-92 win over the Brooklyn Nets in Game 1 of their first-round NBA playoff series.
Although the Hawks saw a 16-point lead dissipate in the second half, and the Nets ostensibly played a gritty final two quarters, there was a glaring area of concern for Brooklyn: open shooters, particularly along the perimeter.
Atlanta’s offense is less a system of ebbs and flows as it is the professionalized version of hot potato. Like his mentor Gregg Popovich, Hawks Coach Mike Budenholzer — who was named the 2014-15 coach of the year on Tuesday — expounds on the merit of spacing, movement and rapid-fire passing until opponents collapse, dazed and confused, wondering where the ball has gone. No one on the team is allowed the hold the ball for more than two seconds, and trying to slow Atlanta’s offensive rhythm is analogous to a measly TIE Fighter attempting to keep up with the Millennium Falcon.
“I don’t think we have any advantage over the Hawks. That’s why they’re (60-22) and that’s why we are (38-44),” Nets Coach Lionel Hollins said in a conference call last week about Brooklyn’s first-round matchup with Atlanta. “They have a very good team. We have to develop a game plan, control the tempo, rebound and score against them consistently.
Hollins touches on an interesting note on the latter half of the quote: rebounding.
Atlanta and Brooklyn both landed in the bottom eight of the league’s rebounding leader board, while Atlanta had one of the lowest rebounds-per-game differentials of any team in the league and finished last in offensive rebound percentage. The Nets had no difficulty controlling the glass in Game 1, scoring 54 points in the paint and outscoring Atlanta on second-chance points. Of the eight first-round games played over the weekend, half of the winners — Chicago, Cleveland, Golden State, Washington — won the rebounding battle. Although the Nets racked up eight more rebounds than the Hawks, including a plus-six showing on the offensive glass, Atlanta pulverized them from the perimeter, which they’ll continue to do if Hollins doesn’t adapt defensively.
In his 2004 book “Basketball on Paper: Rules and Tools for Performance Analysis,” Dean Oliver posited that rebounding doesn’t correlate to winning — at least, in the sense that most believe it does. “Is rebounding important to winning games? Of course. Is it as valuable as shooting, getting to the line, or controlling the ball? In the NBA, it doesn’t appear to be so,” Oliver wrote. And although the data Oliver was parsing through was from nearly a decade ago, some notions remain true: Rebounds create opportunities and second- and third-chances, but shooting a higher clip, to an extent, nullifies the need to grab them.
The Hawks earned their first No. 1 seed since Bill Clinton was president, and they did it by shooting the lights out.
Budenholzer’s club averaged the most catch-and-shoot field goal attempts of any team while shooting the highest effective field goal percentage — which adjusts for the fact that a three-point field goal is worth one more point than a two-point field goal — of any team in the league on those attempts. The Hawks finished sixth in offensive efficiency and were among the best perimeter-shooting teams in the league. Brooklyn, coincidentally, allowed the third-most catch-and-shoot field goal attempts of any team this season.
All-star shooting guard Kyle Korver finished with a game-high 21 points in Sunday’s game, shooting 33 percent on catch-and-shoot opportunities. His highlight reel from the series opener is a showcase of floor spacing, Brooklyn blowing defensive assignments and just downright unholy shooting off pick-and-rolls.
Korver also led the league in the regular season in field goal percentage (46 percent) on off-the-dibble three-point field goals and netted both of his attempts in Game 1, according to SportVU data. This is worrisome for Brooklyn not only because Korver is efficient in small windows, but also because the Nets opened up colossal, house-size windows along the perimeter all season for opponents. Atlanta took 36 uncontested field goal attempts in Game 1 and had a team effective field goal percentage of 49.4 percent. Allowing the Hawks to connect on 10 three-point field goals didn’t do the Nets any favors, but that’s seemingly a conservative figure if Atlanta shoots the ball the way they’re accustomed to. This is the same Hawks team that bludgeoned the Nets 131-99 less than three weeks ago and reached triple digits in scoring in just under 60 percent of its regular season games.
This offense, as you’ve probably surmised, is well above the league average.
Opponents shot 35.8 percent (eighth-highest percentage) against the Nets from beyond the arc this season. This, coupled with the team’s inability to shoot from beyond the arc (Nets ranked No. 26 in three-point percentage), leaves comebacks far and few between. Brooklyn controls the rim better than most in the league, but when a team has the offensive firepower and shooters that Atlanta has, schemes need to adapt, wounds need to be cauterized before they are too far gone.
If the Nets hope to hang around in this series like they did Sunday — and potentially take a game off the top-seeded Hawks — they should hone their perimeter defensive skills rather than sidling the paint area.
Let’s be honest here: Atlanta is a 93.2 percent favorite to win the series, according to Team Rankings. Nobody — save for Jay-Z and Bruce Reznick (Mr. Whammy) — predicts the Nets will make history and become the sixth team in the last 31 years to upend a No. 1 seed. However, if Hollins hopes to extend the series, controlling the perimeter should be a focal point.