ATLANTA -- All season long, the Atlanta Hawks have opened the doors to Philips Arena and put on exhibitions in free-flowing, ball-sharing basketball that made a nation of high school basketball coaches swoon. A team that featured one of the NBA's most stagnant offenses not three seasons ago transformed itself into a modern dance troupe.
Little of that was on display in the Hawks' 99-92 victory over the Brooklyn Nets in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series on Sunday. Instead, Atlanta turned in the kind of utilitarian effort we more commonly see 333 miles to the west-northwest in Memphis' Grindhouse.
In the process, the Hawks had a couple of vulnerabilities exposed -- health and rebounding.
The first lies entirely out of their control, but is probably of greater concern to Atlanta. Forward Paul Millsap, the Hawks' most consistent contributor this season, is still coping with a right shoulder sprain he suffered at the hands of the Nets on April 4. Coach Mike Budenholzer expressed "no concern about Paul," and explained away Millsap's 2-for-11 night from the field as just a function of variance. "I know he probably doesn't have many games like that, but it happens to everybody," Budenholzer said.
By his own admission following the game, Millsap struggled with his mobility and rhythm, which he said needed to improve.
"If not," he said, "you've got to learn how to adjust."
Millsap wouldn't assign the shoulder a percentage, only that it was less than 100 and "time will tell."
The Hawks can survive without Millsap at full strength, but would have trouble flourishing, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. His creativity provides a fulcrum to an offense with specialists on the wing. He's a convenient isolation option for the Hawks on those rare but needy occasions when the offensive carousel slows. He's also a reliable spacer, and versatile pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop partner for Jeff Teague.
A hush came over the Philips Arena crowd at just inside the 11-minute mark of the fourth quarter when big man Al Horford grabbed his dislocated pinkie finger after securing a defensive rebound. There was an active scrum for the ball off Earl Clark's missed jumper, during which it appeared Horford nicked his hand against Nets center Miles Plumlee.
The Hawks immediately called timeout, and Horford was led to the locker room. He returned with just less than six minutes remaining, his pinkie wrapped with a scroll of tape. X-rays were negative. Horford went 0-for-2 over the final stretch, and said he was bothered by the injury.
"It definitely affected me," Horford said. "Having it taped like that around my finger -- especially on my shooting hand. It was very uncomfortable to shoot the ball."
Horford said he was obviously going to play on Wednesday night in Game 2, but added that he was uncertain to what extent the injury might affect him moving forward.
"I don't know," he said. "I've had something similar to this, [but] not as bad as this. But we'll see."
We'll see and time will tell don't offer a fountain of reassurance but ... time will tell.
The Hawks can ill-afford to have their starting big men liable to contact, because the only thing preventing a romp over Brooklyn is the glass, where the Hawks have struggled all season and got mauled for the better part of Sunday evening.
As a matter of philosophy handed down by the Oracle of San Antonio, the Hawks readily yield the offensive glass as a means of securing their transition defense. Advanced statisticians will continue to debate the matter, but some very strong basketball teams have abided by this tactic and won -- largely because they've compensated on the other end.
That hasn't been the case in Atlanta, where the Hawks ranked 22nd this season in defensive rebounding rate. Brooklyn is no great shakes on the glass, either, but the Nets are bigger than the Hawks at four of five starting positions and quickly made use of that size on Sunday. In the first quarter, the Nets' ugly assortment of Joe Johnson post-ups and dribble handoffs produced nothing against Atlanta's typically stingy base defense, but they stayed within shouting distance with seven offensive boards.
The Hawks recognize the problem, but with Millsap and Horford both managing injuries, a backup center in Pero Antic with the lowest rebounding rate among qualified centers not named Matt Bonner (and who are we kidding?), and another backup big in Mike Scott who ranks 60 out of 74 power forwards, it's a problem that needs solving.
The good news for the Hawks is they have some time. That we can dice a relatively stable 7-point victory in a playoff opener as an exposure of vulnerabilities suggests the Hawks are a team that understands how to problem-solve. They're facing a deeply flawed opponent that somehow can't find shots for an offensive-oriented big man who towers over the Hawks' front line, gets outrun in transition and often looks just plain joyless.
So, yes, the Hawks have problems, but they're #firstseedproblems that can be addressed with time and attention, and won't come due for another couple of weeks at the earliest. This is where a 19-game winning streak comes in very handy.