The Brooklyn Nets have a pulse. Saturday’s 91–83 win over top-seeded Atlanta may have been ugly, but it was effective. Neither team shot better than 40 percent from the floor, despite both teams getting plenty of open looks, but Lionel Hollins’s team took control with an 18–0 second half run to get the eighth-seeded Nets on the board. Another Nets win Monday night in Brooklyn and suddenly the best-of-seven series is tied at 2–2.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
For one thing, Al Horford was not on his game—probably due to his dislocated finger. The 6-foot-10-inch Hawks center hit just 3 of 12 shots and a free throw, good for 7 points after dislocating his pinky finger in Game 1. If he’s healed by Monday, it’s another headache for the Nets and Hollins to solve.
Also, how many times can they win with Deron Williams hitting just one shot? The four-time-All-Star has had back-to-back one-hoop games and the Nets, luckily, are 1–1 in those games. It’s not a formula for winning though.
Fortunately, Brook Lopez’s performance is a formula for success. The 7-foot center is averaging 19.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game in the series. And although the Nets dropped the first two, they were both by single-digits.
Atlanta’s playoff inexperience may be a factor too. Though Atlanta had the best record in the East this year, the Hawks, as a franchise, haven’t advanced past the first round since 2011. In fact, they haven’t even made the conference finals since 1970. The last time they were the top seed—way back in 1994—they fell in the semis to Indiana.
Expectations are rarely high for this club.
History, of course, isn’t exactly on the side of whatever team is seeded eighth.
Only four times have the top seeds lost in the first round, to the No. 8 seed, since the NBA expanded the playoffs to 16 teams back in 1984.
The first time it happened was when Dikembe Mutumbo and the Denver Nuggets shocked the top-seeded Seattle Supersonics in 1994. As we would soon learn, Seattle and then-coach George Karl were usually better in the regular season than when the pressures of the postseason were upon them.
Five years later, the New York Knicks beat the top-seeded Miami Heat on Allan Houston’s last-second shot in Game 5 to take the opening-round series. The Knicks would make it all the way to the finals before falling to the Tim Duncan-led San Antonio Spurs in the strike-shortened season of 1999.
Eight years later, Warriors coach Don Nelson got back at Mavs owner Mark Cuban in the best way possible—by coaching his eighth-seeded Golden State to an upset of Cuban’s top-seeded Dallas in the opening round.
But the last time it happened should give Nets fans some hope. Four years ago Memphis beat, of all teams, the championship-tested San Antonio Spurs in a first-round shocker. Who was Memphis’s coach at the time? None other than Lionel Hollins.
It could happen.