While most of the basketball world was focused on the Final Four on Saturday, the Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets -- or, specifically, Kevin Durant and Trae Young -- were putting on a show in a game that quietly had serious implications in the NBA playoff race.
The Nets jumped out to an early double-digit lead, but the Hawks surged in front during the second quarter and would not relinquish that advantage. Durant poured in a career-high 55 points, going 19 of 28 from the field and 8 of 10 from 3-point land. Despite his best efforts, the Nets' comeback attempt fell short and the Hawks held on 122-115 to extend their winning streak to five games.
After the game, Durant talked about how the Nets have been playing "undisciplined" basketball, a fair accusation given Brooklyn gives up the sixth-most free throw attempts per game in the league (22.9).
"We're fouling early," Durant said. "We put them in the bonus early every quarter; 37-14 [difference in] free throw makes. And it's not 'cause of the refs, it was because we're reaching and being undisciplined and just playing too aggressive. That's the game. They shot 42% from the field which is great defense, 31[%] from the 3. They outrebounded us by two, and one more assist than us ... it's just fouls. And we can't do that if we want to be a winning team."
The Hawks went to the line 49 times, and converted 37 shots, in the win. The Nets, however, took just 19 shots at the charity stripe, making 14 of them.
While the Nets didn't win the game, we have to first talk about Durant's incredible performance. Thirty of his 55 points came in the second half as he tried to drag the Nets back, but even that wasn't enough. Durant and Kyrie Irving combined for 86 points, while the rest of the roster combined for just 29.
Durant was in such a zone that at one point he casually walked into a one-leg runner from the top of the key. You know you're feeling it when you start breaking out the shots you would normally take just fooling around in a workout.
But as brilliant as Durant was, the night ultimately belonged to Young and the Hawks. With his friend, Quavo, watching courtside, Young put up 36 points, six rebounds and 10 assists, and closed the show in style. With the Hawks clinging to a three-point lead in the final minutes, Young took over. He scored 11 points in the final 91 seconds, including a nasty pull-up 3-pointer over Patty Mills with 22.7 seconds remaining that essentially ended the game.
Now with five straight wins under their belt, the Hawks have improved to 41-37 on the season. What's more, they jumped both the Nets and the Charlotte Hornets to move up to eighth place in the Eastern Conference. That may not seem important, because they'll still be going to the play-in tournament, but if you finish No. 7 or 8, you need to win just one game to get into the playoffs. Teams in spots Nos. 9 and 10 have to win twice.
For Brooklyn, this loss to the Hawks is a costly one, dropping them to 10th in the East, and solidifying that they will have to go through the play-in tournament to secure a playoff spot. Although Durant put up a career high, he was more focused on the loss and what it means for his team going forward.
"Every loss is deflating," Durant said. "I ain't even worried about that. I'm just mad at the loss. I'm glad I shot the ball well. Made eight 3s, a career high, but I wish we would have came out with a W just by doing the little stuff. My points are going to come. My shots are going to come, but the little stuff that we got to do, we got to be on the same page with."
The Nets can still climb up the rankings to improve their position heading into the play-in tournament. However, they'll have to rely on some of the teams ahead of them losing some of the final games in the regular season, in addition to winning, something that hasn't quite come easy for Brooklyn as of late.