On Thursday afternoon (at least in the United States), the Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets will take the floor to play a regulation NBA basketball game. The 3:00 pm tip-off time would be odd in any circumstance, but this one is even more special for one reason.
They are playing in London.
Admittedly, this regular season game hasn’t garnered quite the same level of intensity as the upcoming NFL game between the Falcons and Lions, but that has more to do with the leagues that both teams represent, rather than an impetus for coverage. To make things more entertaining, the Hawks have a giant rooting interest (or in this case, rooting against) with the Brooklyn Nets, as they have the right to switch draft picks with Brooklyn following the season.
On the court, the Nets are currently 15-22, but they are playing much better basketball recently, even without the services of their two best players in Brook Lopez and Deron Williams. Lopez has been ruled out for the season with a foot injury, while Williams has missed the past 4 games with ankle troubles and won’t make the trip to London. Still, the Nets have won 6 of their last 10 games, and it won’t be smooth-sailing in route to a win for Atlanta.
Brooklyn has really struggled on defense this season, posting a bottom-5 rating in defensive efficiency (105.6 points allowed per 100 possessions), and that provides some hope for the Atlanta offense. The Hawks have slipped firmly into the middle-of-the-pack on offense, but the team still leads the NBA in assists per game, and while points are more difficult to come by without Al Horford, Atlanta should be able to score.
Because Brooklyn is without their “stars”, there isn’t an absolute must-see match-up, but with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Joe Johnson on the floor, there are still storylines. Johnson is, of course, an old friend, and he has carried the Brooklyn offense at times, even to the point where some believe that he’s deserving of All-Star consideration. Garnett and Pierce have long been hated by a portion of Atlanta fans for their Boston antics, but each is playing considerably better basketball in January (Garnett shooting 62% from the field, Pierce averaging nearly 16 points per game).
The point guard battle is also quite interesting, as Jeff Teague takes on the mismatch of dealing with former lottery pick Shaun Livingston. Obviously, Livingston isn’t as dangerous as Williams would have been, but he may be an even worse match-up for Teague given his size (6-foot-7) and recent play, including a 19-point, 11-rebound masterpiece against Miami last week. Fortunately for Atlanta, there is virtually nothing of NBA quality behind Livingston, and if Teague can avoid his length, there could be smooth-sailing.
Up front, the Hawks could be without Pero Antic, who missed Sunday’s game with back spasms, and without him, they’d be very short-handed. Gustavo Ayon saw his first action in weeks against Memphis (7 rebounds in 14 minutes), but Pero provides a different dimension that can move Andray Blatche and Mason Plumlee (Brooklyn’s compliment to Kevin Garnett). Paul Millsap and Garnett form the “must-see” battle inside, but it’s the supporting cast that could be critical here.
Lastly, there is always (at least in the last year-plus) the small task of Kyle Korver’s 3-point record, and the mark currently stands at 107 straight games as the team touches down in London. It would be pretty brutal for Korver and the team to see the streak snapped on Thursday, especially given Brooklyn’s big-time struggles on defense. In fact, the Nets are dead last in 3-point percentage allowed this season (38.8%), and that sets the stage for an “easy” continuation of the streak for Kyle.
The most important thing about this trip to London, at least on the surface, is a unique level of exposure for the organization. All eyes will be on this game from an NBA perspective, and while Brooklyn has been a disappointment, they are still a large-market team who generates considerable buzz. That doesn’t equate to an outstanding on-court performance for Atlanta (although it may be one), but at the very least, it’s a 2.5-hour advertisement for Mike Budenholzer, Danny Ferry, and the new direction of the organization.
Stay tuned for more coverage as the game arrives.