ATLANTA — Having been there a time or two themselves, the Atlanta Hawks are well aware of the folly involved with taking the Brooklyn Nets lightly.
The sub-500 record, the uneven season and seemingly indifferent attitude about trying to be an elite team, given the highest payroll in the league, will not be a factor in this No. 1 vs No. 8 first-round playoff series against the Eastern Conference juggernaut Hawks and the slipped-in-through-the-backdoor Nets.
So they know better than most the faulty thinking in assuming they will see the same Nets team they swept 4-0 during the regular season.
“Doesn’t mean a thing,” Hawks All-Star forward Paul Millsap said. “Gotta win four games. And then try and win four more. It’s the playoffs.”
All-Star guard Kyle Korver agreed that Hawks’ regular season dominance over the Nets is meaningless the moment the game tips off this afternoon at Philips Arena.
“It’s hard to win any playoff series, no matter who it is,” he said. “We won some games against them this year. But their team has changed a lot over the course of this year. They had guys who were injured or really out of sync or whatever. And I think if you ask them, they probably feel like they’ve played their best basketball over the last 15 games or so of the regular season. They definitely present some challenges for us. They have great size, they’ve got some guys who have had great careers. They are well coached. We have a ton of respect for them.”
The Nets certainly boast personnel that suggests they should be much higher on the playoff food chain in the Eastern Conference than the 8th and final seed. Joe Johnson, a seven-time All-Star and one of the backbone of the Hawks’ turnaround from lottery outfit to playoff time during his time here, has shined in the postseason crucible before. Deron Williams and Brook Lopez have plenty of postseason experience as well.
Any team with those three players in a rhythm at the same time can be dangerous in a playoff setting.
But the Hawks enter this postseason in a different space, with a confidence that has often been absence during their 8-year run, the longest active streak in the Eastern Conference. Having All-Star center Al Horford healthy and back in the mix for an entire season is a huge boost as well.
The Hawks’ first and last, prior to this season’s mercurial run, playoff trips came with the No. 8 seed and underdog tag their fans have grown accustomed to dealing with in these postseason scenarios. Both times, against the eventual champion Boston Celtics eight years ago and against the Indiana Pacers last season, the series stretched to seven games.
Horford was an integral piece of the that series against the Celtics, shining as a rookie in his first postseason appearance. He watched in designer suits last season, unable to come back from a torn pectoral injury that cost him most of the season.
“It’s not just me,” Horford said. “I still think the most important thing is we have another year together as a team in this system. And we have last year’s experience. I know you cannot replace experience, you cannot take anything or any opposing team for granted. You have to respect the other team for doing what it takes to get here. But I am really excited to come out here and see what I can do to help this team win.”
As excited as he is to see the floor today, the rest of the Hawks are just as anxious (not “nervous,” as DeMarre Carroll was quick to point out) to see him back in the playoff mix as the anchor of this crew on both ends of the floor.
“It’s big, his ability to spread the floor,” said All-Star point guard Jeff Teague. “but it’s also him on the defensive end being the anchor. Him being able to get up and down the floor and run and try to get Brook Lopez to try and keep up with him. We just have to play with a lot of pace. Al’s definitely excited to get back on the floor and to be able to play in front of our great fans again in the playoffs.”