Nets Individual Talent Falls Short to Hawks System in Game 1

Jeff Teague & the Atlanta Hawks took Game 1. (AP)
Jeff Teague & the Atlanta Hawks took Game 1. (AP)
Jeff Teague & the Atlanta Hawks took Game 1. (AP)

ATLANTA, GA. — It was fitting that the game’s deciding possession, in front of a raucous sellout crowd of 18,440 at Philips Arena in Atlanta, was a battle between the ghosts of Atlanta Hawks past and present.

With the Brooklyn Nets down 97-92 and a potential upset slipping away, Thaddeus Young inbounded the ball to former Hawks All-Star Joe Johnson. Johnson, who was roundly booed by Hawks fans on every touch, was swarmed by equal parts crowd noise and Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll, which forced the ball out of his hands.

So, too, were Thaddeus Young & Deron Williams, and Johnson never got the ball back: an off-balance Williams three bounced away into a diving Carroll’s hands to end the game, and the Nets eventually fell 99-92 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

It was one of many “Iso-Joe”‘s called in the roller-coaster second half, as the Nets climbed within three points, fell behind 16, and cut the lead once more to four in the closing minutes. It was a closer game than predicted, as the Hawks had swept the season series by an average of 17.3 points per game.

Coach Lionel Hollins was encouraged by the effort, despite the loss. “I told the team after the game, I said: ‘If you don’t believe that you can play in this series, you should believe it now,'” he said at the podium.

RELATED: Game Grades after Game 1’s Loss

The Nets hit just 5 of 20 three-point attempts on the night, buoying their outside woes with 54 points in the paint. They were led by Johnson & Brook Lopez, who each scored 17 points, though Johnson took a team-high 17 shots to Lopez’s seven. Thaddeus Young added 15 points (7-16 FG) and 10 rebounds, with Lopez grabbing 14 boards of his own.

The Nets got even less offense going for Lopez as the stats would indicate. Four of Lopez’s attempts were put-backs after an offensive rebound, and four of his free throws also came after offensive rebounds.

Al Horford (AP)
Al Horford (AP)
Lopez has gotten numerous looks out of pick-and-roll sets early in games, developing a chemistry with Deron Williams and hitting short floaters. But those looks were nowhere to be found against Atlanta. “They’re doing a good job of taking away the pick-and-roll,” Lopez, who averaged five shots per game in the first quarter alone during the regular season, said in the visitor’s locker room, his feet resting in ice. He later added: “We knew they were going to do that from the last Atlanta game, and the last three games of the regular season, teams were looking to do that. So we… walked through a lot of plays and options to counter that stuff, and get good looks off of what they were giving up to take the pick-and-roll away.”

“Their defense is so good against our first actions,” Deron Williams analyzed. Williams scored 13 points (5-11 FG), but only recorded two assists on the night, struggling to make an impact. “We’re not going to score against our first pick-and-roll. We have to as a team swing the ball, swing the ball again, maybe, drive it, we can’t just try to come up, screen-and-roll, one pass, shot. That’s playing into their hands and giving them what they want.”

With Lopez stifled, the Hawks leapt out to an early 32-20 lead in the first quarter, behind the type of free-wheeling, unselfish style that Bill Walton envisions during his spiritual awakenings in the Mojave desert. The Nets recorded just zero assists and committed six turnovers in the quarter. The Nets played the Hawks even over the second and third quarters, but could never regain the lead.

“I just went to other people,” Hollins said. “That’s why you have a team, that’s why you go out and you play with five guys. If we had to depend on Brook to get 20 shots, we were going to lose by 25. We did what we had to do, and some nights, a player’s going to get more shots than other nights. Tonight was one of those that we didn’t get him a lot of shots. You could say we should’ve done something else, but it is the way it was.”

Johnson was Hollins’s go-to choice, and he delivered inside, bullying into the paint for floaters and layups. The Hawks helped the process along, with unforced turnovers and missed open shots in the second half. But Johnson also missed all six of his three-point attempts, and was bothered with Carroll’s defense all night.

The matchup served as a telling metaphor for each team’s standing: Johnson’s individual talent could not compete with Carroll fitting in Atlanta’s structured system, right down to Carroll diving on the floor, closing the game as Johnson stood idly by.

More notes:

  • If you ask me — and you might not have — I find it hard to believe that the Nets couldn’t find any moments for pick-and-roll sets with Lopez early. It seemed more like Lopez was uninvolved in the offense.

  • Johnson recognized the crowd, and though he said the boos didn’t affect him, he appreciated their effort. “They were pretty good,” Johnson said after a knowing laugh. “It made it a hostile environment, so I’m happy for guys like Jeff and Al, who get to experience this. Congratulations to those guys on a great regular season. This is going to be a tough series, man. It’s just one game, and we’ve got to put it behind us and move forward.”

  • The Nets might be encouraged by the loss, and they should take any positives they can get. But the Hawks didn’t play great basketball for well over half the game, and still pushed a double-digit lead for long stretches of the second half. It would be hard to believe the Hawks miss as many shots as they did Sunday night in Game 2.

  • A prescient Lionel Hollins before the game cited turnovers as the team’s likely problem, adding “You can blink and be down 10.” The Nets trailed 21-11 less than seven minutes into the first quarter, and finished the night with 17 turnovers, which led to 24 Hawks points.

  • Hawks All-Star center Al Horford dislocated his pinkie finger in the fourth quarter. He returned to the game.
  • Huge lift from the Philips Arena crowd tonight. Strangers high-fived strangers after baskets. Toddlers stood on their seats to see the action. The boos for Joe Johnson were confusing, unnecessary, unwarranted, and reverberated.

  • One weird chant from the crowd: “DANNY FERRY!” when Joe Johnson was at the line. I know he made “the trade,” but that may not be the man you want to align with.