At the start of this calendar year, the Nets’ franchise as a whole was in brutal shape. The blockbuster trade that brought in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce was officially a bust. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov was openly flirting with the idea of selling the franchise. Deron Williams looked like a shell of his former self and Lionel Hollins looked like the wrong man for the job.

But the Nets kept playing.

Brook Lopez started to play steady. Ditto for Joe Johnson. Thaddeus Young was a God-send.

A couple weeks back, people started to notice that the Nets might actually make the playoffs. Now? There’s optimism for an upset of the Eastern Conference’s top team.

The Hawks showed some vulnerability down the stretch of the regular season, particularly when they endured a three-game losing streak in March – something that rarely occurs for a NBA championship-caliber team. The team is also reeling from the loss of Thabo Sefolosha, who will not return for the Hawks’ postseason run after suffering a broken tibia following a stabbing outside of a NYC club earlier this month. Odd enough, the Hawks were in town to play the Nets when the incident occurred.

Atlanta beat the Nets, 114-111, at Barclays on April 8 and blasted Brooklyn, 131-99, in Atlanta back on April 4.

It was a battle of the big men in the most recent meeting as Hawks center Al Horford pumped in 24 points and Lopez countered with a game-high 26. Atlanta’s guard play was much better that night, however, as Jeff Teague recorded a double-double with 15 points and 12 rebounds. Nets starters Williams and Markel Brown combined for just 15 points in the loss.

The Nets and Hawks begin their best-of-seven-game series Sunday in Atlanta (5:30 p.m., TNT).