The Brooklyn Nets are back at home, facing a possible elimination game for the second time this year.[note]The first, of course, being the last game of the regular season.[/note] But they’ve got hope: they’ve beaten the Atlanta Hawks at home twice already in this series. Here’s our keys to winning Game 6.
1) Getting Brook Lopez established. For all the craziness in this series, Lopez’s imprint is clear-cut. In their two wins, Lopez scored 26 and 22 points; in their losses, he scored 20, 17, and 15. The less he scored, the bigger the final margin was.
Call it Lopez’s Constant. In the regular season, the Nets were 16-5 when Lopez scored 22 or more points, and 18-33 when he didn’t.[note]They were 4-6 when he sat out with injury.[/note]
That’s not to say the Nets should just throw Lopez the ball and make him shoot as many shots as possible. But more often than not, when Lopez is getting the ball in a position to score, he’s going to do it. The Hawks stymied the Nets on pick-and-roll looks in Game 1, the Nets countered by getting Lopez going on the shorter rolls that led to his floater. As long as he’s not relying on post-ups far from the basket or his 18-foot jumper early, the Nets should look to him as the first and last option on most possessions.
2) Finding the right spot for Deron Williams. Williams in Games 1, 2, 3, and 5: 23 points. Williams in Game 4: 35 points. It’ll go down as one of the great “what-the-hell” throwback games for Williams, who hadn’t scored 35 or more since setting an NBA record for three-point shooting in 2013.
First and foremost: don’t expect 35-point Deron Williams again. Don’t do it to yourself. Say it with me now: “I am not expecting Deron Williams to score 35 points again. I am not expecting Deron Williams to score 35 points again. I am a reasonable adult repeating words written on my computer screen because I know Deron Williams will not score 35 points again.”
But even if Deron Williams does not score 35 points again (refer to the above paragraph if you need further counseling), he can impact the game in other ways. For one, Williams has been an oddly good spot-up three-point shooter this season; he shot 42.5 percent on “catch-and-shoot” three-pointers this season, best on the Nets[note]Per NBA.com.[/note], and has hit 50 percent (8-of-16) in the playoffs. They’re undefeated this season when Williams makes four or more three-pointers. Yes, his ridiculous 27-foot fling made all the highlight reels, but if Williams hadn’t made five of eight spot-up threes heading up to that point, that fling doesn’t happen — or mean anything if it does.
If the Nets can find Williams for clean looks from three — and he’ll be at the mercy of an offense that’s prone to iso-ball — he might not put up 35 again, but he’ll impact the game in a major way.
3) Plugging holes in Atlanta’s equal-opportunity offense. The way to attack the Nets is to bring Brook Lopez away from the rim, force him to cover guards in pick-and-rolls, and figure out where the open man is in Brooklyn’s suddenly-scrambling defense. When Lopez is around the rim, he’s a dangerous defender that deters layups and dunks; when he’s out of the paint, he’s a crocodile on land.
But the Hawks threw out so many different looks over the course of the series, and didn’t really take advantage of that flaw until Game 5. Their offense isn’t centered around pushing one look until it fails. It’s a flow that gets everyone involved at different points over the course of the game. If the Hawks continue to attack Lopez, or bring him out of the paint with pick-and-rolls or Al Horford’s shooting threat, the Nets will have to make a surprise adjustment or pray.
4) Backing up Brook. Following Game 5, Lionel Hollins admitted that he didn’t want to play Mason Plumlee in the fourth quarter, for fear that the Hawks would go to the “Mace-A-Mase” strategy, fouling the 49.5 percent free throw shooter over and over again to cut Brooklyn’s offense off before it even begins. Lopez was noticeably tired at the end of the game, which played a factor in the loss.
Hollins has a few options. He can go to Plumlee, risk the hack-a strategy, and hope that Plumlee hits a few surprise shots if the Hawks go that route. They could also use that time strategically, maximizing the time between the foul and the free throw, to give Lopez & his teammates an extended breather in less playing time.
If Hollins is unwilling to play Plumlee in the second half entirely, he could go to the little-used Jerome Jordan, who’s hit free throws at an 84.6 percent clip in his short career. Jordan is a limited player, but he’s seven feet tall and Atlanta won’t gum up Brooklyn’s chances by fouling him.
Thaddeus Young at center is a fun experiment, but they’ve only really done it for ten minutes in the series, and unless Lionel Hollins has a renewed faith in Mirza Teletovic or wants to run Joe Johnson into the ground, they can’t rely on that for long stretches. Whatever Hollins chooses to do will have a major imprint on the game — and thus, the season.
5) The Alliteration Army. Alan Anderson, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Jarrett Jack have all made their imprint in various ways this series. Anderson had perhaps the best game of his career during Game 5, hitting all four of his three-pointers and putting up 23 points in the loss. Bogdanovic has been a killer shooter in Barclays Center. Jack has lightened the pressure on the gas pedal, and it’s amazing what he can do when he’s going just slightly above the speed limit.
Bogdanovic should get the start again, and it makes sense. His shooting numbers go through the roof when he’s playing at home, and fall off a cliff when he’s on the road. He’s an intuitive offensive player who can hit his open three-pointers and cut backdoor for easy shots, and he’s done enough to bother Kyle Korver defensively.
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But don’t count out Anderson, heretofore referred to as “Pocket Aces” or “Aces.” Aces is a similar player to Bogdanovic; he’s a better defender and a worse shot creator, but their role on the floor is identical: hit open threes, pester opposing shooters, and fit into the offense without being the focal point. Aces swung into Jason Kidd’s starting lineup last season in the same situation (down 3-2 as the underdog), and it helped change the complexion of the series.
All three of these guys have emerged as an X-Factor in this series. One or two of them has to step up again. My guess is Bogdanovic, given his hot shooting at home. But any one of the three will do.
6) Controlling chaos. I’m not fooling you, and you’re not fooling me. Every one of these games has come down to the last few moments and a few key, wild plays or players going in either direction. Good luck trying to predict Deron Williams’s 27-foot heave, Aces’s Kyle Korver impression, or Jarrett Jack taking three shots in a playoff game while leading the team in plus-minus. Most people didn’t even think the Nets would win one game, and here they are with two under their belt.
Playoff series wins come down to so many tricky things. The gameplanning, talent, and execution are the overarching factors, but split-second decisions in wonky moments can change the course of a game. With seasons on the line, it often comes down to completely unexpected factors. The Nets have to hope for a modicum of luck, but also that one of their big players makes a big difference. Enjoy the insanity.
Game 6 ahoy!