NEW YORK -- As the Atlanta Hawks returned to the court for the second half of Game 6 against the Brooklyn Nets, a message was left behind on the whiteboard in the visitors’ locker room at Barclays Center -- Stay pissed off.
The Hawks had come out of the gate Friday looking like their best selves: Pretty motion sets that released Kyle Korver on pin-downs or moved into pick-and-rolls for Al Horford with the Nets’ defense on roller skates. Transition buckets for Paul Millsap or DeMarre Carroll. Everybody finding everybody, with Jeff Teague looking like he’d watched a mile of Tony Parker film while on the training table.
But in what’s become a familiar and unsettling pattern for the Hawks, their lead receded as the non-starting units jammed up the gears. Idle jumpers, casual drives into oncoming traffic, missed teammates. The Hawks led by 15 early in the second quarter and were flirting with a proper disposal of the Nets, the kind of pounding No. 1 seeds are supposed to administer to opponents who dare to show up to the postseason with fewer than 40 wins. But there Atlanta was at halftime, leading only by six and stewing.
That was the message drilled at intermission: Be angry. Harness the substance of that anger, and go to work.
“When we get mad, we play the right way,” Carroll said after the 111-87 win eliminated the Nets. “I think that’s the biggest thing for us -- we should be mad more often.”
What’s notable about this Howard Beale shtick for Atlanta is how much it diverges from their self-image. The Hawks have fashioned themselves as a team that prospers through evenness. Millsap and Korver speak about it regularly, the notion that the Hawks aren’t an emotional group or a “roller-coaster team,” as Korver put it after a brutal Game 4 loss.
Intensity is happily encouraged in HawksWorld, but any burst of emotion that compromises rational behavior should kindly be checked at the gate. Teague tells the story of coach Mike Budenholzer telling him to kindly table the trash talk while he was lighting up the Pacers last year in the first round. Carroll, the most visceral player in the Hawks’ starting lineup, is frequently counseled to stay within himself.
There’s a fine line between being angry and playing angry -- the first acceptable in the spirit of competitiveness, the second usually not a good idea unless you’re wired like Russell Westbrook. Atlanta threaded the needle beautifully in the third quarter, starting with Teague, who, though he didn’t score a point Friday, embraced the role of conductor.
“I don’t think that Jeff scored a point tonight, but his presence and fingerprints were all over the game, and I thought it was one of the best games that I’ve ever seen Jeff play,” Korver said. “His focus and energy really fueled that third quarter.”
Two of Atlanta’s first three field goals of the second half were Carroll buckets generated off Teague steals and assisted by the Hawks’ point guard. Far beyond that, Teague looked joyful as he flicked a behind-the-back pass to Horford in the Hawks’ basic, middle pick-and-roll action. He looked positively dominant when he blocked Jarrett Jack’s jumper, sprinted to the left corner on the break without the ball, passed up a shot once he got there and confidently hurled a baseline pass to Millsap underneath the hoop.
If this choreography seems familiar, that’s because it was vintage, pre-All-Star Break Hawks, as the ball never stopped and they dictated pace in both the half court and on the break. Truth be told, the Hawks were never really that far from their 19-game win streak over the winter. During the six games of this series, the Hawks scored 114.4 points per 100 possessions with the starters on the floor and allowed only 98.0, according to ESPN Stats & Info. That net efficiency of 16.4 points per 100 possessions dwarfs their regular-season spread of 8.1.
Each Hawk starter was comfortable in his role. Korver was lethal, hitting six of 10 from distance. For a guy who doesn’t look quite right with a bum right shoulder, Millsap was the paragon of efficiency -- 25 points, nine rebounds, six assists. Carroll endured foul trouble but was a 3-and-D-and-glee mastermind as he hit shots and smothered the Nets’ perimeter scorers. Horford, as always, was Horford -- pick-and-pop maven, calming force and backline communicator.
Over the course of the series, Budenholzer returned to his starting unit sooner in the fourth quarter than was typical in the regular season. In Game 4, he pulled the cord on the reserves near the 10-minute mark. In Game 5, he rode the starters for the entire final frame. On Friday night, such a decision was unnecessary because the starters came out of the locker room in their prescribed fit of rage and opened the half with a 14-3 run before Carroll picked up his fourth foul. With Kent Bazemore in his place, the Hawks ripped off another nine unanswered points, which vaulted them to a 26-point lead.
The Hawks will open the second round against Washington on Sunday afternoon (1 p.m. ET) in Atlanta before an ESPN on ABC audience. If the timing, rhythm, efficiency -- and anger -- are as properly tuned as they were Friday and in the weeks preceding the All-Star Break, the Hawks might still have a rightful claim as the best the East has to offer.