In three matchups this season prior to Wednesday night, the Atlanta Hawks outscored the Brooklyn Nets by an average of 22 points per game. So when the Nets staged an improbable fourth-quarter run, turning a 12-point deficit into a one-point lead in under five minutes, fueled by Joe Johnson’s shotmaking and a suddenly raucous Barclays Center crowd, it almost seemed inevitable: the Nets were setting up yet another exciting, close home game that they’d pull out against all odds in the final seconds.
But what happened afterwards wasn’t much of a surprise.
A tenant of good offense is that it forces a defense into reacting to multiple options, based on the personnel on the floor and movement in the play. Reactions normally come from some sort of misdirection: a screen on or off the ball, a slip screen, a v-cut, or some other action. Those misdirections create options, which in turn force the defense into making a pick-your-poison decision.
This is what the Hawks do for 48 minutes per game. It’s an unselfish, diverse style built on making reads and finding the right shot, handed down from Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer. Budenholzer is a disciple of Gregg Popovich, who I’ve heard is a good coach.
With the Hawks down 111-110 with 24.1 seconds left, that’s exactly what the Hawks did, and the Nets didn’t — setting the stage for a 114-111 Hawks victory, improving them to an Eastern Conference-best 59-19 on the season and dropping the Nets to 36-42, guaranteeing their first losing season in Brooklyn.
It was a contrast in styles; the Nets looked to their best late-game playmaker, the Hawks looked for the high-percentage shot. In the battle of play vs. playmaker, play won.
“As with most things, we had a couple of options,” Budenholzer said of the play, which took exactly five seconds off the clock. “Our players make a lot of good reads, make a lot of good decisions. At times they draw a lot of attention, so if we move the ball, hopefully we’ll get a good look. It was a good read, good decision by Kyle Korver.”
The play revolves around Korver, the league’s top three-point shooter at 49.5 percent from deep. After a quick v-cut to get Deron Williams leaning ever so slightly towards the ball, Korver receives a screen from Mike Scott on the right side of the floor, which leaves Williams trailing slightly behind.
“They just ran Kyle Korver off a couple screens,” Williams said to reporters. “I was a little late getting out there. I think Brook saw it and kind of jumped out, and when he did, that was pretty much the design of the play. It was for us to help, and he just whipped it down there to Horford.”
“I thought I saw a lot of separation when Korver was coming off the pin-down,” Lopez analyzed after the game. “I definitely should’ve stunted (jab-stepped towards Korver before running back to Horford). But I played it quick in my head, and I just figured the way Korver shoots the ball, you know, I’d rather get it out of there, and hope for something on the weakside to get a 2 instead of a 3. Just go down the other way, to make it a little easier for us in that regard. Definitely going to be thinking about that a lot tonight.”
Hollins acknowledged the bind Atlanta’s playmaking put his defense, which now ranks 25th in the NBA allowing 105.2 points per 100 possessions.[note]Teams below the Nets defensively: the Magic, Kings, Knicks, Lakers, Timberwolves. Combined record of 103-390 (.264).[/note]
“No, he wasn’t supposed to be out there,” Hollins said of Lopez. “But I can understand where he’s coming from in that situation. The guy’s wide open and he has the ball. He needed to go stop it, but the guard (Williams) kept coming, and Brook left Horford at the basket.”
Following the Hawks running a moving, multiple-options offense, the Nets elected to go straight Iso-Joe in the waning moments. Johnson at times is an offense unto himself, and can draw multiple defenders in one-on-one situations. That’s what happened, and set Jarrett Jack up for a corner 3, which hasn’t been a bad look for Jack this season despite his struggles from three-point range. But it didn’t fall:
“I thought it was pretty good,” Jack said of his look. “(Hawks defender) Kent Bazemore did a tremendous job of covering… and closing back out after he helped on Joe’s penetration.”
An offensive rebound by Lopez led to another good look by Bojan Bogdanovic, but the fading shot fell short. The play took twice as long as Atlanta’s even before the offensive rebound, and the Nets had to foul with just 2.7 seconds left. It was a sequence that upset a certain billionaire in the house.
After free throws put the Nets down by three, the Nets didn’t have any time to run a play, finding Joe Johnson in the corner for a wild turnaround three-pointer that spun halfway in before rimming out. It was a surprisingly close look, but a natural result of the position they’d put themselves in, given how the two teams ran their late offense. With the Hawks a likely first-round foe for Brooklyn, the Nets have a lot to clean up — without much time to do it.
Post-game audio thanks to Anthony Puccio of NetsDaily