NEW YORK (AP) — They were separated by 22 victories in the regular season and a mere nine points so far in the playoffs.
The Atlanta Hawks, on cruise control over the final weeks of the season, and Brooklyn Nets, who didn’t even have a postseason spot until after their final game, have delivered one of the closest, most competitive series of the first round.
Now Brooklyn will try to extend it.
The Nets, who have never lost a Game 6 in the first round, host the Hawks on Friday in the only game on the NBA schedule.
“I think that this has been a thrilling series, and we hold serve at home and extend it to a seventh game and anything can happen,” Nets coach Lionel Hollins said.
Atlanta won the first two, before the Nets answered with two victories at home and nearly rallied from a big early deficit in falling 107-97 in Game 5 on Wednesday. Showing a fighting spirit that was often absent during a 38-44 regular season, Brooklyn can push the East’s No. 1 seed to a seventh game — just as the Hawks did last year when they were the No. 8 and took Indiana to the limit.
This time, the Hawks were the class of the conference after finishing 60-22. They beat the Nets four times in the regular season but have outscored Brooklyn just 500-491 in the playoffs. Atlanta outscored them by 69 (17.3 per game) in the season series sweep.
“You never underestimate any team,” Hawks center Al Horford said. “There’s some adversity we’re facing, and they’re playing really good basketball. They’re very confident. We just have to be able to handle that and come out and play better. They’re pushing us, we’re pushing them, and I feel like it’s going to make us better in the end.”
A lackluster start to the playoffs has given way to a compelling second week. Only one second-round series was set entering Thursday, with top-seeded Golden State to meet No. 5 Memphis beginning Sunday in the Western Conference semifinals.
The Hawks also will play Sunday, though the opponent remains unknown. They could host No. 5 Washington, which swept Toronto in the first round, in Game 1 of the East semifinals, or face one more game against Brooklyn.
The Nets are 5-0 in Game 6 of a best-of-seven, first-round series. They fought off elimination in Game 6s the last two years, ultimately losing Game 7 to Chicago in 2013 and beating Toronto last year.
“Every game is hard and an elimination game is hard,” Hollins said. “It’s the fourth game and it’s the last one you have to win, and you have to have the right mindset and you have to go out and execute and do the same things. And the other team is a very desperate team because it’s the last game if they don’t win.”
A look at Friday’s game:
Hawks at Nets, Atlanta leads 3-2, 8 p.m., ESPN
Make sure to watch the first quarter, because it’s been pivotal to the series. The Hawks outscored the Nets 94-60 in Games 1, 2 and 5, while the Nets were a plus-16 in their two victories.
The Nets got big contributions off the bench in Game 5 from Alan Anderson and Jarrett Jack, who outscored Atlanta’s reserves 41-16. Only Pero Antic, Dennis Schroder and Kent Bazemore played more than 10 minutes as Mike Budenholzer rode his four All-Star starters and DeMarre Carroll, who is averaging 17 points as perhaps the Hawks’ most consistent player in the series.
“Our bench has been a real strength for us,” Budenholzer said. “I’m sure there will be an opportunity for it to be a strength again tomorrow night.”
Jack’s contribution was particularly important for the Nets since starter Deron Williams was just 2 of 8 for five points after scoring 35 in Game 4.
“We’ve just got to come out and play better,” Williams said of Game 6. “We’ve got to get back to playing our basketball, moving the ball, sharing the ball, making extra passes, playing for each other.”
AP Sports Writer Paul Newberry in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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