The Atlanta Hawks surprised everyone by posting 60 regular season wins, and finishing as the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference.
But after winning 40 of their first 48 games, Atlanta largely cruised in the second half of the season. And, without Thabo Sefolosha — who missed 23 games with a calf injury before being ruled out for the season with a leg fracture — the Hawks posted a record of just 17-13 in the 30 games he missed.
Facing a Brooklyn Nets team that needed the Pacers to lose on the final day of the regular season in order to sneak into the playoffs (with a sub-.500 record), Atlanta took Game 1 as expected. But it wasn’t as easy as it should have been, and that should be cause for concern .
The Hawks won by a final of 99-92, but allowed the Nets to creep back within contention far too often in this one to come away feeling at all satisfied.
Atlanta led by as many as 16 points in the second quarter, but saw the lead whittled down to just seven before the halftime intermission. Brooklyn closed to within three in the third, before the lead ballooned to 16 points once again.
It was a 14-point Hawks lead with under nine minutes to play, but Brooklyn had it down to just four with 1:33 to play, and made Atlanta work to the end to close the game out.
The Nets are not a good basketball team, even by the most objective of standards. When the Hawks were at their best, they moved the ball to create open looks for their shooters, just as they’ve been able to do all season long. Kyle Korver led all scorers with 21 points on 6-of-12 shooting, which included going 5-of-11 from three-point distance. That’s honestly unconscionable from a defensive standpoint, yet even with Atlanta’s fifth leading scorer getting loose to that extent, Brooklyn still managed to close the gap and make a game of it on multiple occasions.
The Nets don’t have the athleticism to stop the Hawks defensively, especially during the stretches when Atlanta expertly moves the ball as it had during the pinnacle of its regular season success. But the lack of a killer instinct the Hawks displayed in Game 1 could be telling, and if they can’t correct it in the first round of the playoffs against a substandard opponent, it doesn’t bode well for their chances in later rounds against elite teams like Cleveland or Chicago who seem to be peaking at just the right time.