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Hawks > Brooklyn First Round Opponent

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ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 28: Kevin Garnett #2 of the Brooklyn Nets defends against Paul Millsap #4 of the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on January 28, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.   Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images/AFP

Bleacher Report previews the Hawks first round playoff series against former Hawk Joe Johnson and the Brooklyn Nets:

Thanks to a win over the Orlando Magic in their last game of the regular season (and an Indiana Pacers loss), the Brooklyn Nets sneaked into the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot with a 38-44 record.

Their reward? A best-of-seven series against the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks, who set a single-season franchise record with 60 wins. On paper, the teams, separated by 22 games, look about as mismatched as you could imagine in a playoff series.

But will the series be a mere formality? Don’t be so sure.

The Nets sport an excellent 13-6 record since March 14, while the Hawks have gone 9-8 over the same stretch. Now, Atlanta has been resting starters frequently and dealing with a variety of injuries since then, but it’ll still be interesting to see how they deal with a hot Brooklyn team.

Head-to-Head Record: Hawks lead season series 4-0

Hawks X-Factor: Paul Millsap

Is Millsap going to be back at full strength for the first round of the playoffs? Probably not. The 30-year-old All-Star played his first game back Wednesday against the Chicago Bulls after missing five contests with a shoulder injury.

He didn’t play particularly well (five points on 2-of-9 shooting with six rebounds in 27 minutes) nor did he feel great after the game.

His health (or lack thereof) will be key as the Hawks attempt to make quick work of the Nets.

Nets X-Factor: Deron Williams

Williams is one of those former superstars who reverts to their old ways every once in a while.

His play in the month of April has been a prime example of this. In Williams’ first five games of the month, he averaged 20.2 points and 9.2 assists per game on 49.3 percent shooting from the field. In his four final regular-season games, however, those numbers regressed to 8.0, 7.0 and 23.4, respectively.

Good Williams will make life difficult for the Hawks. Bad Williams will not.

Have the Hawks lost their edge?

Atlanta’s preferred starting lineup of Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap and Al Horford is one of the top five-man units in the NBA. During the regular season, the group started 55 of the 82 Hawks’ games.

However, since Feb. 28, that lineup has started only 11 out of 24 contests together. This is partially due to various injuries to Teague, Korver and Millsap but also because of lots of planned rest by head coach Mike Budenholzer due to the Hawks’ huge cushion in the Eastern Conference.

Not coincidentally, Atlanta has gone a middling 14-10 since then after starting 46-12. The starting unit will need to get its rhythm and motivation back to ideal levels quickly if it plans on quickly disposing of Brooklyn.

Can the Nets win the battle of the benches?

If you saw the above infographic, you’d know the Hawks have a decisive advantage in the starting lineup.

Three of the matchups (Teague/Williams, Korver/Markel Brown and Millsap/Thaddeus Young) swing clearly in their favor. The other two (Carroll/Joe Johnson and Horford/Brook Lopez) are basically toss-ups, which means Brooklyn has exactly zero matchups it can exploit when facing Atlanta’s top group.

In reserve, the Nets do have some explosive players. Jarrett Jack is the quintessential backup point guard, rookie Bojan Bogdanovic has averaged 14.4 points per game in April and big man Mason Plumlee plays with a lot of energy and athleticism.

Brooklyn’s bench performance against the likes of Atlanta’s Dennis Schroder, Shelvin Mack, Kent Bazemore, a slightly hobbled Mike Scott and an emerging Mike Muscala will determine how long this series goes.

What will Paul Millsap provide?

We’ve discussed Millsap as an X-factor for Atlanta, but his health really is one of the central storylines of the series. Any time a team gets an All-Star back from an injury, that’s something the opposition should be looking out for.

The Hawks can still win without one of their four All-Stars playing at full strength but still keep a close eye on Millsap’s progression. His health will be especially important against more talented teams in the later playoff rounds, should Atlanta advance.

Why the Hawks Will Win

The Hawks at least somewhat regain their midseason swagger, moving the ball and rotating on defense crisply. Their starting unit is much better than the Nets’, even if Millsap’s role is limited to providing an emotional boost with his presence.

Brooklyn’s 24th-ranked defense doesn’t have the athletes to stop Atlanta, especially Teague, Carroll and Horford. The benches are also generally similar in skill level, which puts Brooklyn behind the eight ball with its starting-lineup disadvantage.

Budenholzer outcoaches Nets head coach Lionel Hollins, who is hapless against the Hawks’ San Antonio Spurs-ian offensive and defensive principles.

Why the Nets Will Win

Williams and Johnson go bonkers, making shots from every corner of the offensive half of the court. Both are shot-makers, and not even a good contest from a Hawks defender will matter when they are on their game.

Young takes advantage of Millsap’s injury, getting physical with him and wearing him down. The 7’0″ Lopez continues his hot streak of play (19.7 points and 9.2 rebounds per game since the All-Star break), and the undersized Horford can’t handle him.

Thabo Sefolosha’s leg injury caused by an incident with the New York Police Department seriously impacts the Hawks bench, placing undue pressure on young Kent Bazemore (16 career minutes of playoff experience). Bazemore has trouble replacing Sefolosha’s leadership and basketball IQ.

Lastly, Atlanta’s on-court chemistry among starters proves to be damaged due to reduced time together in the past couple of months.

Prediction: Hawks in 5

It’s tough to see many of those scenarios in “Why the Nets Will Win” happening consistently over the course of a best-of-seven series. The Hawks have better coaching, more talented players and home-court advantage.

That trifecta should be more than enough to lift Atlanta to a series win.