It’s not just that the Atlanta Hawks drew Brooklyn, as opposed to Indiana, in Round 1. The better part comes later: They won’t have to play Chicago in Round 2 and then Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals; instead they get to watch the Cavaliers and the Bulls hammer one another.
The Nets in Round 1 has sweep written all over it. Brooklyn needed a fourth-quarter surge to beat lowly Orlando on Wednesday and then had to wait and see if the Pacers lost in Memphis, which the Pacers did. On Sunday and Monday, the Nets showed how playoff-hungry they were by losing to Milwaukee and Chicago by an aggregate 50 points. Not two weeks ago, they played the Hawks at Philips Arena and lost by 32.
The Nets have the same record — 38-44 — as the Hawks did last season when the latter was the No. 8 seed, but there’s where the similarity ends. The Hawks were a bad stylistic matchup for the top-seeded Pacers because they could spread the court and run Roy Hibbert off the floor. Those Hawks had beaten those Pacers by 19 points in Indianapolis on April 6 and would win twice more there in the playoffs.
Those Hawks were unlucky not to upset the No. 1 seed, losing Games 6 and 7. These Hawks won’t see a Game 6 in Round 1. I’d be surprised if Brooklyn wins at all, even the almost obligatory face-saving Game 3 at home.
As for what comes later: Toronto won’t be easy in Round 2, but the Raptors are much the preferable draw to the Bulls, who have Derrick Rose back yet again, if not fully operational, and have the size to hurt the Hawks underneath. Yes, Toronto is 3-1 against the Hawks — it’s the only Eastern team to beat them even twice — but two of those losses came before Thanksgiving.
Dwane Casey is a very good coach and Kyle Lowry is a tough point guard and Lou Williams (whom the Hawks know well) is a big-time scorer, but still: The Raptors should not beat the Hawks over seven games. And the winner of that series figures to be in much better shape for the Eastern finals than the bruised survivor of Cavs-Bulls.
Were I Mike Budenholzer, this is exactly how I’d have laid it out: No Pacers in Round 1 for a third consecutive year; no Bulls in Round 2; no Cavs until Round 3. (You’ll note that none of the Hawks’ starters played over the final 15 minutes of Wednesday’s loss in Chicago; a Hawks’ victory would have dropped the Bulls to the No. 4 seed and a possible second-round date with Atlanta.)
I say again: The Hawks should reach the NBA finals.