ATLANTA –If the Hawks intend to live up to their reputation as the Spurs of the Eastern Conference, they will need Al Horford to be Duncan-esque throughout the playoffs. On Wednesday night, Horford fulfilled the tall task with arguably his best game of the season.
Horford scored 20 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and tallied five assists as the Hawks maintained the lead from the start of the game and edged out the Nets by a final score of 97-87.
For the first time since injuring his right pinky in Game 1 of the series, Horford appeared comfortable on both ends of the court, eventually proving to be the deciding factor in a fourth quarter that played tighter than the final score suggested.
“Al was kind of all over the court on both ends,” said Head Coach Mike Budenholzer. “I’m sure the people who are here a lot hear how versatile he is and how he impacts the game in so many different ways. I think the fourth quarter was probably that at its best.”
After Brooklyn opened the fourth quarter on a 9-0 run to cut Atlanta’s lead down to three, Horford appeared to put the onus on himself to carry Atlanta to the win. Horford scored six points and grabbed three crucial offensive rebounds in the game’s final eight minutes, hitting consecutive long twos to reinforce Atlanta’s lead with less than three minutes to go.
Horford’s shooting has been a concern for the Hawks, as his injury had visibly affected his confidence and touch. With Horford occupying the paint earlier in the series, Atlanta’s spacing seemed congested. In Game 5, however, Horford looked comfortable stepping away from the paint to shoot for the first time since the injury.
“Any time you have an injury to a hand, it could affect you a little bit,” acknowledged Horford. “I just really took my time with my shots tonight.”
Horford’s shooting touch has been essential for the team’s offensive identity all season, and Wednesday night demonstrated how Horford’s ability to convert from the midrange can translate into easy opportunities for teammates.
“When Al is aggressive and just looking at his shot and looking at the basket, it opens the floor for everybody,” said Jeff Teague. “I just kept telling Al ‘Shoot the ball. Shoot the ball. If you miss it, it doesn’t matter cause it helps our flow in the offense. And once he sees one go in he’s going to be confident.’“
Despite breaking out to a 17-point lead by the end of the first quarter, Atlanta’s night was better defined by its sputtering starts to the second and fourth quarters.
Brooklyn opened the second quarter on a 9-0 run to get back into the game. Despite never taking the lead, Brooklyn kept Atlanta worried throughout.
“Give Brooklyn credit,” said Mike Budenholzer. “They’re playing at a high level. They made plays and tonight we were able to make enough down the stretch.”
Alan Anderson led the way for Brooklyn with 23 points on 4-of-4 shooting from behind the arc. Brooklyn shot 10-of-22 from deep (45.5%) for the game but it wasn’t enough to take control after starting the game sluggishly.
“We certainly don’t want to play from that far behind to start the game,” said Nets coach Lionel Hollins.
Jarrett Jack led Brooklyn’s comeback campaign in the fourth quarter, scoring 12 consecutive points on his own to cut Atlanta’s lead down to one with just under five minutes to go. Still, Brooklyn failed to fully take control of the game as Horford’s consecutive shots served as consecutive daggers.
“They did a tremendous job establishing themselves early, establishing the pace and the style of play,” said Jack. “They came out like gangbusters. I thought we responded well, maybe a little too late. I felt like we were playing an uphill battle all night but I’m still proud of my guys. We gave it a good fight down the stretch.”
While Atlanta will be happy to take the series lead into Friday night’s Game 6 contest in Brooklyn, there is legitimate concern about the team’s ability to reestablish their pace and offense after long breaks of action — particularly to begin the second and fourth quarters. Brooklyn went on a 9-0 run to open each of those quarters and quieted the crowd.
“We’ve got to come out of those timeouts more focused,” acknowledged Budenholzer. “We’ve got to be more committed to move the ball and share the ball. I think we are aware of it and we’ve got to be better in those situations in Game 6.”
Jacob Eisenberg is a college senior at Emory University and works as an NBA columnist for Sheridan Hoops, specializing in analytics-based scouting reports for individual players. Follow him on Twitter and check out his website.