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No. 1 Hawks happy to 'slide under the radar' as underdog

Series Preview: Hawks vs. Nets

POSTED: Apr 16, 2015 8:57 AM ET

By Sekou Smith

BY Sekou Smith

NBA.com

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Since when is a 60-win season not enough?

When it's the Atlanta Hawks doing the winning, of course.

Same goes for their perfect January, which anywhere else is reason for pandemonium. And their four All-Stars and coaching staff that represented the franchise in New York during All-Star 2015.

"They peaked too soon" and "It could go to their heads."

That's the way it goes for a team whose skeptics have somehow grown as their win total swelled to franchise-record proportions.

What do the Hawks get for running away with the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed this season? Cast aside, by most pundits, as nothing more than a speed bump for either Cleveland or Chicago somewhere down the road in the odyssey that will be the chase to represent the East in The Finals.

Never mind their complete handling, for much of the regular season, of all who crossed their path, like the Cavaliers, Bulls and basically every other playoff power they faced, save for the Toronto Raptors (who won the season series with the Hawks 3-1).

Now the Hawks enter the first round of the playoffs against Brooklyn, fresh off their second three-game losing streak of the season, both of those coming in the final six weeks, thrust into a position of proving themselves all over again. They have to prove that their regular season was no fluke and that their pace and space style has staying power in the postseason.

"I think that's big for not only us in this locker room but for the city," DeMarre Carroll said. "A lot of people are doubting us. But we're all we've got. And at the end of the day, we know the style of basketball we've been playing can carry over into the playoffs. So we're not really worried about the naysayers. By the same token, we want to do like San Antonio does, slide under the radar and let everybody talk about someone else. Let Cleveland be the talk of the East and we'll just slide under the radar."

The Hawks' season snuck under the radar for most. They barely made the playoff field last season and even though they battled No. 1 seed Indiana, which was already in meltdown mode, to a Game 7, no one saw this 60-win behemoth coming. Al Horford was returning after missing the majority of the 2013-14 season and the entire playoffs with injury. There were no seismic additions in free agency and the tumult of an ownership debacle involving Bruce Levenson and the subsequent fallout featuring general manager Danny Ferry and his indefinite leave of absence, figured to set the Hawks back this season.

Instead of drowning in a mess of the organization's own making, Horford and the Hawks took off after a 5-5 start.

Horford joined Paul Millsap and first-timers Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver as All-Stars. Mike Budenholzer, who took over basketball operations in Ferry's absence, made a compelling case for Coach of the Year and the momentum grew with every milestone.

And yet somehow, the team with the longest playoff streak in the Eastern Conference and the second longest in the league behind the Spurs, finds itself in the role of underdog once again.

"I think we learned from last year's (playoff) experience as a team and we've had another season together," Horford said. "So I'm excited to see what we can do now. Last year we had to grind to get in and this time around we had a chance to measure ourselves and manage the process. The credit goes to coach, he's had a great pulse on us and where we're at. He's really the one who has put this all together and now we get a chance to take care of our business."

• Complete series coverage

Five quick questions (and answers) ...

1. Is Paul Millsap's sore shoulder playoff ready? It better be. The Hawks are not the same team without Millsap and Horford, their dynamic 1-2 All-Star punch in the frontcourt, working in concert. Millsap finished the regular season as the Hawks' leader in points, rebounds and steals and is one of the most underrated defenders in the league. He returned to the lineup for the regular season finale in Chicago, scoring just five points on 2-for-9 shooting in 27 minutes after missing five straight games. Not having him at full strength Sunday weakens the Hawks considerably.

2. Can a Nets team that got wiped out 4-0 by the Hawks in the season series, losing by an average of 17 points per game, flip that script in the playoffs? Probably not. But if Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez come to play, it's very possible that the Nets can make this series interesting. All three of these guys have been All-Stars during their careers and need to muster a collective effort worthy of players of their ilk (at least on paper). They have it in them. They showed it during a 10-2 run from mid-March through early this month that pushed them back into the playoff mix.

GameTime: Thabo Sefolosha Out

Jared Greenberg and Steve Smith discuss the Hawks losing Thabo Sefolosha for the season due to a fractured tibia.

3. Who fills the defensive void on the perimeter for the Hawks left by the loss of Thabo Sefolosha? There are candidates available in the form of Kent Bazemore, who is primed for a bigger role, and the ridiculously underrated Carroll, who is one of the truly elite wing defenders in the league. Bazemore has the athleticism and relentless attitude required to fill in for Sefolosha, even if he doesn't have the playoff experience. Carroll's already the Hawks' designated defensive stopper and can guard four positions, making him an invaluable piece for a team built on a bedrock of defending on a string.

4. Which player with Atlanta ties will haunt the No. 1 seed in this series? Jarrett Jack and Thaddeus Young, former Georgia Tech stars, will have all the incentive in the world to perform in a playoff spotlight just a few miles from where they made their names as collegiate stars. Johnson, whose seven best seasons in the league all came in a Hawks uniform, is returning to face the franchise that catapulted him into stardom and All-Star status during the prime of his career. He'll surely get the rudest welcome of the three from the crowds at Philips Arena and has the best opportunity to play the heel if the Nets make the Hawks sweat a bit in this series.

5. Will the Hawks finally enjoy the home court advantage that Philips Arena was all season in the playoffs? If this regular season was any indication, Philips Arena qualifies as a true home court advantage for the home team. Complaints about late arriving crowds that have traditionally shown up as much for the opposing team as they have for the Hawks is an issue of the past. The fervor for this team, and in particular this record-setting season, has taken on a life of its own around the city. And that should be reflected in the crowds the Hawks will enjoy at home for the duration of their postseason run, however long it lasts.

When the Hawks have the ball ...

The pace and space system Budenholzer implemented took off in his second season with the team. Teague has become an absolute technician at running the offense, knowing when to attack and create for himself and when to probe the defense for cracks and find the open man. Horford and Millsap are lethal with the mid-range game, giving the Hawks quality shooters and options all over the floor.

Stay Consistent

Kyle Korver strokes three triples from the same spot running the same play.

The Hawks are more about space than they are pace and they have the ultimate weapon in Kyle Korver. When they get the defense scrambling to cover the driving lanes, that leaves Korver on the perimeter free to fire away from distance. Korver led the NBA in 3-point shooting this season, connecting at a blistering 49.2 percent of his shots from deep.

When the Nets have the ball ...

Williams controls the action for Lionel Hollins' team, but he had to earn his coach's trust. The Nets have the ability to play inside-out through Lopez, the team's leading scorer (17.2 points) and rebounder (7.2). The Nets don't survive solely on a steady diet of post ups and isolation sets designed for Lopez, but it might be their best bet against a Hawks team that will have to single cover Lopez with players two and three inches shorter than their big man.

Kia Nominee: Brook Lopez

The Net's Brook Lopez is a nominee for the Kia Eastern Conference Player of the Month.

The Nets are far from a shutdown defensive group, ranking in the bottom third of the league (23rd) in defensive rating. But they're not a high-powered offensive bunch either. They'll have to pick up the pace to keep up with a Hawks team capable of winning in a variety of ways.

In the clutch ...

Concerns about who gets the ball at crunch time for the Hawks are external. The fact that you don't know who to scheme to stop in these situations makes the Hawks extremely difficult to prepare for, even with the space between games that usually comes with the postseason. They have four to five guys on the floor at all times capable of taking and making a big shot, and from anywhere on the floor. And they are at their best when their drive and kick game is clicking.

Lopez is the inside threat. Johnson the most reliable from the perimeter. And Williams is the man charged with picking and choosing where to go with the ball with the game on the line late. Lopez has played his best basketball of the season since the All-Star break (averaging 22 points and 10 rebounds in March and April). That said, Johnson has a history of being fearless when it comes to taking big shots with games on the line.

Wild cards ...

Mike Scott is one of the Hawks' most intriguing players because he's a more than capable shooter from distance in a power forward's body. He can stretch the floor and yank an opposing big man away from the lane, creating even more space for the Hawks' guards to attack and create chaos for defenses. He can play inside or out and will be needed to fortify the frontcourt rotation in this series.

Nets rookie Bojan Bogdanovic saved his best performance for the regular season finale, coming up with a season-high 28 points on 12-for-17 shooting in a win over Orlando. The Nets need him to stay hot until Sunday's opener at Philips Arena to provide some additional scoring punch for a group with an offensive rating (19) that ranked in the bottom half of the league.

Prediction ...

You don't win at the rate the Hawks did during the regular season and allow this series to stretch beyond five or six games. With all of the injuries and resting that went on after the All-Star break, and after they locked up the No. 1 seed, it appeared the Hawks might have lost their edge. No way. And it took the Nets, a team that finished the regular season with a paltry 8-20 record against the seven other playoff teams in the Eastern Conference, until the final night of the regular season to punch their postseason ticket. Hawks in 5.

Sekou Smith is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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