The first three games you could explain away, sort of, by saying the Atlanta Hawks weren’t hitting. Through those three games, they’d made 39 percent of their shots, which is terrible for any playoff team but ridiculous for a No. 1 seed that made 46.6 percent over the 82-game regular season. But there could be no explaining Game 4.
The Hawks made 48.4 percent of their shots — outshooting Brooklyn for the first time in the series — and lost anyway. They outrebounded the Nets for the first time in the series and lost anyway. They led by 12 points in the second half and lost anyway. We can no longer say they’re struggling because the ball’s not falling. They’re struggling because — as was suggested in this space after Game 2 — they’re not playing well.
And that’s a way bigger issue. Even good shooters will have bad nights. What’s troubling is that the Hawks have played four games and haven’t yet gotten a handle on how to stop a 38-win team. Some of that, I concede, has to do with the Nets being an exceedingly weird bunch, but the Hawks went 4-0 against them in the regular season. What’s so different about now?
Over the course of these four games, the Nets have found ways to score against a team that ranked No. 7 among NBA clubs in defensive efficiency. It’s not the same Net every night — Deron Williams’ per-game point total has gone 13, 2, 3 and 35: Jarrett Jack’s has gone 13, 23, 5 and 4 — but the Hawks haven’t yet held them under 90. That’s troubling. Even more troubling is that the Nets, who were 24th in defensive efficiency, are guarding the Hawks better than they’re being guarded.
It would be wrong to say the No. 1 seed has let the series slip away. The Nets have to win a game in Philips Arena to win the series, and I still don’t see that happening. (Came close to happening in Game 2, though.) As we saw when the No. 8 Hawks pushed the No. 1 Pacers to the limit last year, the longer a series goes, the longer the better team — that’s still the Hawks — has to figure things out.
I remain confident the Hawks will do that. I think they’ll win the next two games and move on to play Washington in Round 2. But I also thought they’d sweep this series, and they’re tied at 2.