NEW YORK — The Hawks came into Game 3 having won the first two games of their first-round series against the Nets, just as a 60-win team facing one that finished the year six games below .500 should.
But this isn’t the same Atlanta squad that won 40 of its first 48 games of the season, and as evident as that was during those first two victories that were more closely-contested than expected, that fact became crystallized during Saturday’s demoralizing loss.
“I think they came out with a lot of energy and a lot of activity, and maybe forced some turnovers,” Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer said afterward. “And I don’t think our rhythm, our pace and all the things we do … I don’t think we started well, and they had something to do with that.”
The Nets jumped on the Hawks early, getting out to a first quarter lead of as many as 15 points. Brooklyn had given back all of it after halftime, however, and trailed by four with under three minutes to play in the third.
But the Hawks’ lack of execution returned at the worst possible time.
An 18-0 run from late in the third until midway through the fourth proved to be the difference, and Brooklyn held on for a 91-83 victory to cut their deficit in the series to two games to one.
The slow start was less than ideal, especially against a Nets team that played well enough in Atlanta to nearly steal Game 2 on the road. But the problems with the Hawks run much deeper than that.
The crisp level of ball movement that Atlanta dazzled with during the first part of the season has disappeared far too often in the playoffs. And that is of much greater concern to the top-seeded Hawks than allowing the Nets a glimmer of hope by letting them back into this series.
Jeff Teague, who was 4-of-13 from the field to finish with 13 points, six assists and four turnovers, believes his team is a long way away from playing the elite style of basketball we saw during the regular season.
“Very far,” he said, when asked how far away the Hawks were from the best basketball they played earlier in the year. “We’re not playing well at all. We’re due for a game, so hopefully next game we’ll get back to our normal self.”
Kyle Korver was limited to just two points on 1-of-8 shooting, which included going 0-for-5 from three-point distance. After being such a key component in the first two games of this series, the Nets stifled him in Game 3 — despite Lionel Hollins at one point downplaying Korver’s significance.
“We were ready for him coming off screens,” Hollins said. “He had a couple open shots that he missed, and when you scramble on a team that hard consistently … when you get open, you’re rushing your shot a little bit.”
“I didn’t really get any good looks early, and probably was pressing a little late,” Korver said. “I was trying to make something happen, but there just wasn’t a whole lot there for me tonight.”
The victory for the Nets validated what they believed at times through the first two games of the series, which was that they can compete with this Hawks team, despite the disparity in their respective fortunes during the regular season.
“I think we knew we could beat this team,” Joe Johnson said afterward.
The win came on a night where they shot just 38.6 percent from the field, and Deron Williams didn’t play at all in the fourth quarter; it was unclear whether it was because he wasn’t right physically, or because he was so ineffective that he was hurting his team’s chances.
At the same time, it’s becoming painfully clear to this Hawks team that they’re no longer the juggernaut they once were. As Brooklyn is finding its way, Atlanta seems to be slipping further and further from the early-season identity it established as a dominant team that shared the ball, and consistently created open looks for shooters within the confines of its equal-opportunity offense.
“We haven’t been sharp offensively for a little while now,” Korver said. “Maybe this will kind of jar some things and we’ll figure some things out, and play with a little more purpose and a little better on Monday.”
Or maybe, the issues that exist aren’t ones which can be fixed that easily.