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Against all odds, once again, the Brooklyn Nets found themselves right there, within hailing distance of the Atlanta Hawks late in the fourth quarter at Philips Arena. The opportunity to seize a shocking split on the road and wrest home-court advantage away from the East's scuffling No. 1 seed in their best-of-seven first-round playoff series sat right in front of them. All they had to do was seize it.
Instead, once again, they fell just short. Instead, once again, point guard Deron Williams comes away wearing goat horns.
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After trailing by as many as 11 in the fourth quarter of Wednesday's Game 2, the Nets found themselves down just one following a corner 3-pointer by reserve point guard Jarrett Jack with 1:55 remaining. Al Horford missed an 18-footer on the other end, giving Brooklyn a chance to take the lead, but Johnson missed a runner that returned possession to the Hawks as we neared the one-minute mark of the game.
A stop and a bucket — that's what Brooklyn needed to head home knotted at one. But with Jack checking Hawks point guard Jeff Teague up top, Williams found himself off the ball and away from the action ... until, suddenly, the action blew past him.
After feinting like he was going to rotate out to contest a pick-and-pop 3-point try by Paul Millsap — a shot it didn't seem like he'd have much of any chance of actually contesting, given the distance he'd need to cover — Williams got caught ball-watching at a very, very inopportune time, allowing Hawks swingman DeMarre Carroll to sneak behind him along the baseline and enter the paint totally unimpeded. Millsap found Carroll for an uncontested layup to put Atlanta up 92-89 with 55 ticks remaining.
To his credit, Williams took a step toward redeeming himself on the ensuing Nets possession, recognizing a similarly inattentive approach from Millsap and capitalizing to hit Alan Anderson on a baseline cut for a reverse layup that got Brooklyn back within one with 45 seconds left:
Millsap responded by getting himself to the line on the next Hawks trip, splitting a pair to give Atlanta a 93-91 advantage with 27 seconds left. Brooklyn coach Lionel Hollins called timeout to draw up a play for a potential game-tying (or perhaps game-winning) look. Johnson drove right against the defense of Carroll before crossing back to his left, heading to the middle of the floor and toward a cluster of bodies, as Atlanta guard Kent Bazemore had crashed down into the paint to help Horford body up Brooklyn behemoth Brook Lopez in front of the rim.
As Johnson entered the paint, though, he didn't look for his own shot or a lob to Lopez. He looked to the corner, where Williams sat wide open, abandoned by Bazemore, and trusted that his fellow $20 million man would make a play.
Williams pump-faked underneath Bazemore's closeout, took one dribble in, and elevated for a wide-open 16-footer on the baseline. It rimmed out. Kyle Korver soared in for the rebound. Williams fouled him, sending the 90 percent free-throw shooter to the line for a pair. That was all she wrote, as the Hawks got away with another less-than-stellar outing, holding on for a 96-91 win. It wasn't exactly pretty, as Atlanta shot just 38.9 percent from the field, but it was good enough to give them a commanding 2-0 lead as the action shifts to Brooklyn for Game 3 on Saturday.
The missed baseline jumper brought an unfortunate but appropriate end to a rough night for Williams, who scored just two points on 1-for-7 shooting and rolled up a -11 mark in 28 minutes of work. Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer offered a pretty simple breakdown of what Atlanta was trying to get accomplished on that final D-Will possession:
Budenholzer says plan on last play was to run Deron Williams off 3-point line, and just hope he misses.
— devin kharpertian (@uuords) April 23, 2015
Smart play-calling, Coach. No wonder they gave you that award.
With his offensive game faltering, Williams did what he could to contribute in other areas. He grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds, looked to create for others en route to dishing eight assists, and also snagged two steals. But Brooklyn seemed to look sharper with him off the floor than on it — backup Jack, whose nightly plus-minus problems have been a running theme for the Nets all season, was a Nets-best plus-nine on Wednesday, scoring 23 points on 9-for-13 shooting with five rebounds, three assists and a steal in 28 1/2 minutes. And his poor shot-making (especially on that final possession) really hurt a Nets team that needed just one or two more buckets to knock off the Hawks, who, for the second straight game, rarely looked like the team that rolled up a franchise-record 60 wins during the regular season.
Williams wasn't the only Net to struggle. Power forward Thaddeus Young matched Williams' two points on 1-for-7 shooting, and experienced his own struggles in trying to track Millsap, who led Atlanta with 19 points on 7-for-11 shooting to go with seven rebounds, two assists and two blocks, looking significantly better in his third game back from a late-season shoulder injury than he did in either the regular-season finale against the Chicago Bulls or the Hawks' Game 1 win.
Johnson missed 10 of his 16 field-goal attempts. Bojan Bogdanovic missed six of his nine shots after being elevated to the starting lineup. The Nets committed 16 turnovers leading to 19 Hawks points, and shot just 8-for-26 from 3-point range. That's not all Williams' fault.
At the end of the day, though, all the Nets needed in the final minute was a stop and a bucket. Williams gave up one and couldn't secure the other. It's a bummer of a story, but it's one with which Nets fans have become pretty familiar over the past few years.
After a crummy-by-their-standards offensive performance in Game 1, shooting just 43 percent from the floor and 10-for-30 from 3-point land, Atlanta came out hot, opening 5-for-5 from the field to knock the Nets on their heels. Teague was getting all the way to the rim and hitting pull-up 3-pointers. Horford knocked down his first 18-footer, offering some indication that the right pinky finger he dislocated late in Game 1 wouldn't be an issue. (He'd finish 6-for-15, though, so maybe it was.)
The Hawks were seizing on lazy passes, getting out in transition and finishing, getting good shooting from their bigs and cleaning up the defensive glass, leading by a dozen with two minutes left in the first. It looked like Brooklyn would be in for a long night. Hollins' club fought back, though, cutting the deficit to five after one by capitalizing on a couple of reckless Atlanta closeouts to the short corner off Nets ball movement — Bazemore fouled Anderson on a 3, which he made (but missed the and-one freebie), while point guard Dennis Schröder flew at Jack, who calmly pump-faked past him, took a dribble and hit a midrange J. (Kind of a depressing parallel to the way things ended.)
The Hawks' sloppiness persisted into the second quarter, as Atlanta continued to struggle to generate the brand of high-quality looks they typically create in Budenholzer's forever-churning motion offense. On the other end, the veteran Jack got his game going, making a slew of tough shots to lead Brooklyn with 16 first-half points, and the Hawks needed a 7-2 spurt in the final 2:45 to take a 50-47 lead into intermission.
Brooklyn continued to grind it out and keep things close in the third, but Atlanta opened it up late, outscoring the Nets 15-6 led by — who else? — Macedonian reserve center Pero Antic, who scored eight points in the final 4:39 and decided that the postseason is the time where he comes in from the perimeter and starts hammering down thunder dunks:
Horford (who finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists, two blocks, a steal and stellar interior defense in 36 minutes of all-around work) and Schröder (12 points, six assists, two steals, just one turnover and some critical dribble penetration in 19 minutes off the bench) made enough plays to keep the Nets at arm's length early in the fourth before Brooklyn began chipping away at the lead behind drives by Anderson (13 points, five rebounds in 30 minutes), jumpers by Lopez (20 points on 8-for-15 shooting after taking just seven shots in Game 1) and the playmaking of Jack. They got close, and stayed there into the final minute.
But close only counts for so much in the playoffs. Just ask Williams, who will be thinking about that 16-footer going halfway down and rimming out — that hair's breadth difference between 1-1 with momentum and 2-0 and drawing dead — all the way back to New York.
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