ATLANTA -- If you're waiting to be dazzled by the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, forget about it -- that window has long since closed. If and when the Hawks untangle themselves from the Brooklyn Nets on Friday or Sunday to move on to face the Washington Wizards in the conference semifinals, it will have been a slog -- like the Boston Celtics' brawl with the 37-45 Hawks in 2008 in the Big Three's maiden voyage, or the San Antonio Spurs' tight series win last spring over the Dallas Mavericks.
This is a series being fought on the margins, where the Hawks have to balance their commitment to packing the interior against the Nets' steady stream of post-ups and short-action pick-and-rolls with closing out the Nets' spot-up shooters. The navigation of those 10 feet between the paint and the arc is the difference between winning and losing for Atlanta, as is its capacity to hold down the defensive glass, where the Hawks got beat up during the regular season. For Atlanta, the five games have been a procession of loose balls, awkward landings and quick retreats to the locker room. Overall, the quality of play has been more functional than brilliant.
In other words, it's been a DeMarre Carroll kind of series.
The Hawks gained a 3-2 edge over Brooklyn on Wednesday night in Atlanta with a 107-97 win, and Carroll was once again the Hawks' most complete contributor. He scored 24 points -- his third consecutive game with 20-plus on greater than 50 percent shooting from the field -- grabbed seven rebounds, had three assists, plucked two steals and didn't turn the ball over once. For the series, the Hawks are now 42.9 points better per 100 possessions when Carroll is on the floor, and this is one of those instances when the eye test corresponds precisely with the data.
Carroll fashions himself as the "Junkyard Dog," and rarely a week goes by when he doesn't drop the self-reference during media availability. A late first-round pick in 2009, he was waived twice during his first two seasons before catching on with Utah, where he made good as a defensive specialist. The Hawks' front office and coach Mike Budenholzer had been fans from afar, and brought him to Atlanta as a free agent to be their starting small forward. Some player development was in order because Carroll was still more rough than refined, but the Hawks liked the raw ingredients and loved the spirit.
There isn't a player in the league who has had more fun coming into his offensive game. It started with Quin Snyder in 2013, when he was a Hawks assistant.
"The first thing he said to me was, 'Has anyone ever worked with you on your footwork?'" Carroll said. "The first drill was pivoting. He just had me out there with the ball, moving around, left foot, moving around, right foot. To a normal individual, it seemed stupid. You're in the NBA. But then I realized, everything is footwork. I didn't know how important footwork is for your shot, catching the ball, being on balance, pivoting after the catch."
Carroll's shot paced the Hawks again Wednesday night. He went 7-for-10 in the first half, including a couple 3-pointers. He scored in transition, where he's the Hawks' most committed runner. He made good on a basket cut -- a remnant from the days when the back door was probably his only hope of scoring in the half court. And he scored on a drive, where he's become a bona fide secondary pick-and-roll ball handler for Atlanta.
Every couple of months, Carroll took on a new project. With assistant coach Darvin Ham, it's finishing around the rim. With assistant coach Kenny Atkinson, it's crafting his skills as an attacking ball handler in the pick-and-roll. With assistant coach Taylor Jenkins, it's perfecting the pass in a drill before each game. In the process, Carroll has grown from a D-only specialist, to a 3-and-D guy, and now arguably the Hawks' most versatile offensive perimeter player. In a system where Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague tend to be the focal points -- Korver off the ball, Teague with it -- Carroll is the all-purpose back.
In this series, the Nets have pursued Korver by often blitzing him off curls and pin-downs, and have been effective containing Teague in the pick-and-roll with their low push. As a result, Carroll has functioned as a release valve, whether as a spot-up weakside sniper, or as a creator off the dribble who can catch and go off a reverse pass, or play pick-and-roll with Al Horford, Paul Millsap or Pero Antic. We didn't even get to his defense, and it's been typically solid against Joe Johnson, who is shooting only 35.8 percent in the series.
As Carroll's portfolio keeps growing, there's a temptation to fly too close to the sun. The Hawks' staff loves having another tool in the shed, but order reigns supreme in Atlanta, so Carroll gets the occasional talking-to about reining it in. When he's doing individual work with the staff or reviewing film in preparation for the next game, the running gag is Carroll telling the coaches, "I don't want to show 'em everything."
The one Hawks starter who was shunning the Bahamas and back in Atlanta getting shots up while the rest of the first unit took the floor at the All-Star Game in New York is now showing the Nets -- and Hawks -- everything. This is his series.