The top seeded Atlanta Hawks play host to the Brooklyn Nets Sunday at 7:30 in the first game of their seven-game series.
The Hawks find themselves in the playoffs after cruising through the regular season, finishing seven games clear of the second place Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference with a 60-22 record. Brooklyn, on the other hand, needed to win nine of its last 13 games to secure the eight seed, finishing the year an underwhelming 38-44.
The Hawks had their way with Brooklyn in the regular season, winning all three games, including a 32-point rout in their most recent meeting on April 6. However, the disparity in the two teams’ regular season success will quickly be forgotten if the Nets manage to win one of the first two games in Atlanta.
In order for Brooklyn to have a chance at pulling off the upset, Deron Williams will have to outplay counterpart Jeff Teague throughout the series. Teague has been the driving force behind this well-balanced Atlanta offense all season, an offense that ranks second in the NBA in assists per game. Teague was mentioned as an MVP candidate earlier in the season, and the Wake Forest product will want to use the playoffs to prove that he is amongst the NBA’s best point guards.
Williams, whose numbers have been on a steady decline for the past few years, will need to play at an all-star level if the Nets are to reach the Eastern Conference semifinals for the second straight season.
The point guards will set the pace, but the series will be decided in the paint. In an NBA that is lacking true centers, both the Hawks and Nets have proven inside presences in Al Horford and Brook Lopez. Lopez was injured for the Nets playoff run last year that ended in the second round against the Heat, but the skilled 7 footer averaged 22 points per game in the playoffs back in 2013. Horford has been underrated for years, but a deep playoff run by the Hawks could garner him the praise that he has long deserved.
The Hawks have quietly been one of the most formidable teams in the Easter Conference in recent years, making the playoffs every season since 2008. However, since parting ways with former stars Joe Johnson and Josh Smith, Atlanta has flourished, having its most successful regular season in the franchise’s 66-year history this year.
Johnson will be keen on showing Atlanta that it made mistake in trading him to the Nets back in 2012, and sending the Hawks home after the first round for the fourth straight season would do the trick.
Several players in the series were standouts at prep schools in the region before making their marks in the NBA. Jarrett Jack has enjoyed a productive season as the Nets backup point guard, averaging 12 points and just under five assists per game. Former Rahway High School star Earl Clark hasn’t made an impact since signing with Brooklyn last month, but his athleticism could be serviceable for guarding the Hawks leading scorer Paul Millsap.
Elton Brand, who was Mr. Basketball in New York his senior year at Peekskill High School, will try to make any contributions to the Hawks that he can, as this will likely be the veteran’s last chance at an NBA championship. Reserve forward Mike Scott, an alumni of Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia, will be another reliable weapon for the Hawks in the series.
The Nets have plenty of veterans who understand how to play through pressure, but the Hawks precise offense will be hard for Brooklyn to match. Johnson and Lopez may combine to score enough to help Brooklyn win a game or two, but the Hawks are the heavy favorites here. Look for Atlanta to take care of Brooklyn in no more than six games.
x Brian McMahon
Follow Brian on Twitter @BrianMcmahonNYC
Follow us on Twitter @insiders13
Photos courtesy of nypost.com and blacksportsonline.com
©2015 Hardwood Insiders. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.