The Brooklyn Nets have a real shot of pulling off one of the biggest upsets in recent NBA history. The No. 8 seed hasn't just tied their series with the Atlanta Hawks at 2-2 because of a couple fluke victories. They've tied it by playing the East's best regular-season team to a draw through four games. The aggregated score in the series: Nets 394, Hawks 393.
It's tempting to focus on the Hawks' problems. They've been far too good at their peak to be in a dogfight against a sub-.500 regular season team with the point differential of a 33-win club. Even if they win this series -- and they still have the edge thanks to home-court advantage -- they have shown major weaknesses that teams can exploit down the road.
Yet, it wouldn't be fair to analyze what Atlanta is doing wrong without highlighting what Brooklyn is doing right. The Nets have slowed the Hawks' vaunted offense to a crawl and are slowly figuring out ways to attack Atlanta's pressure defense. They could have defeated the Hawks in Game 2, even with an average Deron Williams game, then they did hold off the Hawks' best offensive performance in Game 4 thanks to a vintage one.
Why is a series that was so lopsided on paper tied? It's a combination of multiple factors.
1. Cutting off Kyle Korver
Nets coach Lionel Hollins scoffed at reporters after the all-star shooting guard hit 5-of-11 from three-point range to lead the Hawks to a Game 1 victory. His implication: Korver wasn't important enough to change the game plan.
"How many shots did he take yesterday and how many did he miss? See, if he's that good, he'd make all of them." Hollins said. "Everybody misses, man. He's a good shooter, I acknowledge that, we acknowledge that as a team, we game plan for him because he is a great shooter. But until he starts shooting 100 percent, we've got to play and be in position to help, and then recover, and close out.
"It's not like we're talking (Stephen) Curry. Korver, he's a great come-off-the-screen guy, he's great with moving without the ball, but he rarely puts the ball on the floor like Curry and shakes you up."
But Hollins' actions speak much louder than his words, because the Nets have changed their game plan to make sure Korver doesn't get any clean looks. He's making just 28 percent of his threes since Game 1 and has barely had any room to fire without at least one hand in his face. Even those numbers don't measure all the times he's curled off a screen prepared to shoot, only for the Nets to be right there with him.
The Nets decided that because they don't have one single player that can chase Korver around screens, nobody should have to try. Instead, they're are playing similar-sized players at the 2, 3 and 4 positions and switching all screens. It's hard to get Korver open when Bojan Bogdanovic is picked off, only for Joe Johnson or Alan Anderson to help him out.
Stopping Korver has become a collective effort. Even when he escapes the switching wings, other Nets have stepped up to prevent his opportunities. Watch the lumbering Lopez jump out to prevent a Korver three.
And notice here how Williams very subtly comes off Teague to help prevent Korver from getting a look in transition.
The Nets have correctly identified Korver as the most important member of Atlanta's offense. During the regular season, the Hawks scored nearly 111 points with Korver in the game and less than 99 with him on the bench.
Hollins was right with his crabby comments in one respect: While Korver can hit jumpers from anywhere, he's not a driving threat like Stephen Curry. Take away his threes -- a difficult, but doable task -- and he doesn't have too many other ways to score. Better yet, by switching effectively, communicating and addressing threats only as they present themselves rather than overreacting to decoys, the Nets can take away Korver's threes without giving up openings elsewhere.
That's the holy grail teams haven't pulled off all year. As the Nets are showing, though, life is different in the playoffs.
2. Giving the point guards space
By contrast, the Nets seem willing to let the Hawks' point guards do all the creating they want. Jeff Teague was an all-star and Dennis Schröder was one of the league's most promising backups, but given space to roam they've both been confused at not having to create every inch of the way. Teague broke out in Game 4, but has otherwise been quiet. Schoreder has been worse than quiet, alternating spectacular drives with out-of-control attacks that have killed his team.
Brooklyn has varied their coverages on both players, but generally are willing to give them space to shoot jumpers. Neither is an expert marksman and both like to dribble into their shot, which ruins Atlanta's offensive flow. These are logged as open shots, but they're not the type of look Atlanta wants.
The correct thing for both players to do is to attack the space given, but they're struggling to do that effectively. Teague went back to being a tentative player overwhelmed by his options against soft coverages earlier in his career before a Game 4 breakout. Schröder is attacking, but lacks the precision to actually make the most of those attacks. He in particular has missed open teammates multiple times in an attempt to be "aggressive."
The Nets' blueprint will be copied if the Hawks manage to pull out the series. If Teague and Schröder can't improve against these coverage, they're in for a world of pain against Washington's ferocious pick and roll defense in the next round. If they make it that far.
3. Brooklyn's "short rolls"
The Nets' offense struggled against Atlanta's relentless pressure in the first three games, but came alive in Game 4. Deron Williams' revitalization was a major reason, of course. The former superstar turned big-money albatross poured in 35 points after the Hawks, convinced his shooting slump would continue, stopped defending him.
Williams converted wide-open looks early in the game and carried that confidence and hot shooting for the rest of the contest.
But the Nets' offense broke out for many other reasons. Brooklyn generated plenty of good looks at the three-point line, taking advantage of a Hawks weakness that hadn't been exploited during the regular season. The Hawks surrendered the most three-point attempts in the league, but teams hit just 34 percent of those shots because they were under duress from the Hawks' aggressive traps.
Brooklyn's answer: Accept that the traps are coming, quickly move the ball and profit before the Hawks can rotate. Brook Lopez is no longer rolling all the way down the lane. Instead, he's stopping at the free-throw line -- NBA people call this a "short roll" -- and taking the pass from the point guard or a wing sliding up to the ball. Once he gets it, he can either swing a pass to the open shooter in the corner ...
... or taking a floater himself.
And if the Nets miss the initial shot, they often had Atlanta's defense scrambled enough to get an offensive rebound.
This is how Brooklyn is using Lopez's size. Calls for formulaic post-ups missed the point, because Atlanta can help and recover on those. As long as the Nets can manipulate the floor before these pick and rolls happen, he can get the ball at the free throw line in the middle of the floor and be a difference-maker.
4. The Hawks' All-Star frontcourt isn't at 100 percent
It should be noted that the Nets' strategy is working because Al Horford and Paul Millsap are not themselves health-wise. Under normal circumstances, these two play in concert with Korver and the point guards perfectly. Both roll smartly to the basket, either can score from the perimeter or inside and each has a strong understanding of spacing so they don't get in the way.
But both are feeling the effects of injury in this series. Millsap's right shoulder is not fully healed and he is thus reluctant to mix it up inside. He's making his perimeter shots, but those slippery drives and dives to the rim aren't as quick, which slows Atlanta's motion. He's oddly been more comfortable driving and finishing with his left hand, which was not the case when he was healthy. Most importantly, he hasn't been effective punishing smaller players in the post, which allows Brooklyn to switch perimeter assignments to cover Korver without worrying about the consequences.
Horford has not felt comfortable since suffering a pinky injury earlier in the series. When he's going well, he fires mid-range shots with confidence and nails them at a very high rate. The Hawks' offense may be three-point oriented, but it needs Horford as a bail-out option, particularly when teams send extra help to Teague and Korver. That bail-out option isn't there anymore and the other Hawks scorers are suffering.
This series illustrates how the Hawks are only the Hawks when all of the links are strongest. The Nets are shutting off Korver, which in turn forces Teague to do too much, which is especially difficult because Horford and Millsap are not themselves. The four All-Stars thrived because of their symbiotic relationship, but that also means they're only as good as the weakest link in the chain. Without DeMarre Carroll, the forgotten fifth starter that's having the series of his life, Atlanta would be losing this series.
As it stands, the Hawks are in trouble, and the Nets should be credited for that.