7:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Heat -7, Over/Under: 219.5
The NBA Playoffs kick into high gear after the weekend’s opening salvo, as the Atlanta Hawks look to avoid falling into an unenviable 0-2 hole in their first round series against the top-seeded Miami Heat, from FTX Arena in Miami, Florida. A year after surprising everyone and advancing all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, nothing has been easy for the Hawks (43-39, 9th in Eastern Conference), who have had to claw their way back into the postseason via the play-in tournament. A meager 17-25 midway through January, Atlanta was indeed on the outside looking in of the playoff field, but thanks to a strong second half of the campaign managed to position themselves within the play-in where they won back-to-back contests to advance to the postseason proper for the second consecutive year. Just as they did when (Head Coach) Nate McMillan took over midway through the previous season, the birds found their rhythm down the stretch, going 26-14 since January 17th and winning seven of their final nine outings. So, what in the name of Kevin Willis has happened to the Hawks, you ask? Well, no matter how shocking their run was last summer, that success created serious expectations for the franchise in 2021-2022 for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, (All-Star Guard) Trae Young (28.4 PTS, 46.0% FG, 38.2% 3FG, 90.4% FT, 3.7 REB, 9.7 AST, 0.9 STL, 25.4 PER) emerged as a bonafide superstar during the playoffs, reveling in his newfound villainy in eliminating the Knicks and top-seeded 76ers, before pushing the (eventual NBA Champion) Bucks to the edge. For all intents and purposes, the 23-year-old has been as advertised this season, posting career-highs in field goal percentage (46.0%), three-point percentage (38.2%), free-throw percentage (90.4%), assists (9.7), and PER (25.4), oftentimes carrying a group that was rarely afforded the luxury of being at full strength. And that’s been the biggest problem for Atlanta, for several members of the supporting cast of been in and out of the lineup with an assortment of maladies, which is proving to still be the case even in the postseason. (Versatile Forward) John Collins (16.2 PTS, 52.6% FG, 36.4% 3FG, 79.3% FT, 7.8 REB, 1.8 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.0 BLK, 18.7 PER) and (Sixth Man extraordinaire) Bogdan Bogdanovic (15.1 PTS, 43.1% FG, 36.8% 3FG, 84.3% FT, 4.0 REB, 3.1 AST, 1.1 STL, 15.4 PER) missed twenty-eighty and nineteen games with respective ailments, while (former Fourth Overall Pick) De’Andre Hunter (13.4 PTS, 44.2% FG, 37.9% 3FG, 76.5% FT, 3.3 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.7 STL, 10.6 PER) missed twenty-nine of his own due to a lingering knee injury from the previous campaign. Furthermore, (veterans) Clint Capela (11.3 PT, 61.3% FG, 47.3% FT 11.9 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.7 STL, 1.3 BLK, 21.4 PER) and Lou Williams (6.3 PTS, 39.1% FG, 36.3% 3FG, 85.9% FT, 1.6 REB, 1.9 AST, 0.5 STL, 12.1 PER) are in doubt for this series with the Heat, with the former hyperextending his right knee towards the end of Sunday’s 115-91 drubbing on South Beach, while the latter is listed as day-to-day with a sore back. Needless to say, Capela’s absence is a BIG deal for McMillan & Co, for apart from happening very much in garbage time (I.E., it was avoidable), the birds literally just welcomed back Collins from foot and finger injuries and can’t afford to lose the size advantage that they have over Miami in the frontcourt. Reports out of Atlanta indicate that the big fella will be re-evaluated in a week, but if Game One was any indication, this series may not even last that long. 1-3 against their division rivals this season, this was already a tough matchup for the Hawks, but this is what they get traveling through the play-in tourney. While things were relatively competitive in the first quarter, the affair really became lopsided in the second period in which the hosts outscored them 36-23, as the Heat caught fire from beyond the arc in knocking down 7-of-13 three-pointers (53.8%). The visitors on the other hand, could muster just 1-of-10 shooting from downtown (10.0%), sealing their fate as they would go on to fall behind by as many as THIRTY-TWO points in what was very much an Easter Sunday massacre. In the end, McMillan’s troops never looked quite comfortable against Miami’s tenacious defensive pressure, shooting 38.7% from the field, including 10-of-36 from three (27.8%), while totaling more turnovers (18) than assists (16). For a team that has lived and died on the performances of the aforementioned Young, Game One was nothing short of a funeral service; the prolific Guard was relegated to a scant EIGHT points on 1-of-12 shooting (08.3%), including 0-of-7 from the perimeter, accounting for six of his team’s turnovers in comparison to dishing out only four assists. In a make-or-miss league, Young and the Hawks simply didn’t make many shots, and with that in mind they simply aren’t good enough on the defensive end, particularly with Capela on the mend to contend with the elite teams in the East. And at the end of the day, that’s been arguably the biggest issue for this team that appeared to be so ahead of the curve just ten short months ago. While McMillan and (General Manager) Travis Schlenk opted to stand pat in Free Agency and count on more internal growth, the rest of the conference got a lot better, and as a result have surpassed Atlanta in the hierarchy, and we saw that on full display in Game One. In the meantime, what can the birds do to split on South Beach, you ask? Apart from miraculously returning to full strength overnight, they’re obviously going to need Young to do what he does best and knock down timely shots, but they also need to do a better job of closing out Miami’s shooters (+24 from downtown) and take better care of the basketball. By reducing their turnovers they’ll in turn keep their opponent from getting out into transition, forcing them to operate in the halfcourt which is NOT their strength. Continuing to get to the charity stripe will certainly help in that department, for Young & Co make the most of their time at the line, knocking down 18.1 free-throws per game (3rd Overall) and registering a FT/FGA ratio of .205 (5th Overall). This was about the ONLY thing they did right on Sunday, netting 23-of-27 singles (85.2%) leading to a +12 advantage.
Meanwhile, if there were any lingering concerns over the Heat (53-29, 1st in Eastern Conference) coming into this series with the Hawks, they were quickly put to rest in Sunday’s 115-91 evisceration on South Beach. Granted, we don’t quite understand the pessimism around Miami at this point of the season, for the last time that they were completely healthy they managed to roll all the way to the NBA Finals eighteen months ago. Furthermore, you could make the argument that (Head Coach) Erik Spoelstra’s charges were the most consistent team in a seriously loaded East, for while the Bucks and Celtics started slowly, and the Bulls and Nets spent much of the second half of the season in freefall, this team logged more time than any in the proverbial penthouse suite. After fatigue from their Finals run coupled with injuries and COVID-19 killed off any chances of postseason glory in 2020-2021, the Heat retooled in a major way this past summer, targeting tough-minded veterans with championship experience. And man, did they find reinforcements; (Point Guard) Kyle Lowry (13.4 PTS, 44.0% FG, 37.7% 3FG, 85.1% FT, 7.5 AST, 1.1 STL, 15.0 PER), (defensive stopper) P.J. Tucker (7.6 PTS, 48.4% FG, 41.5% 3FG, 73.8% FT, 5.5 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 11.3 PER), and (versatile Forward) Markieff Morris (76 PTS, 47.4% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 88.9% FT, 2.6 REB, 1.4 AST, 10.9 PER) offer that in spades, with each player having performed a valuable role for the last three NBA Champions. Furthermore, all three figures fit Miami’s culture PERFECTLY, stretching the floor from the perimeter, defending doggedly on the opposite of the end of the hardwood, and wearing a noticeable chip on their shoulders, all of which fit seamlessly playing alongside (All-NBA Swingman) Jimmy Butler (21.4 PTS, 48.0% FG, 23.3% 3FG, 87.0% FT, 5.9 REB, 5.7 AST, 1.6 STL, 0.5 BLK, 23.6 PER). Is there a more appropriate marriage between club and player than the Heat and Butler? The six-time All-Star remains a consistent force on both ends of the hardwood, averaging 21.4 points per game on 48.0% shooting, along with 5.9 rebounds, 5.7 assists, and 1.6 steals. And then there is the internal growth from the rest of the supporting cast, namely (Sixth Man extraordinaire) Tyler Herro (20.7 PTS, 44.7% FG, 39.9% 3FG, 86.8% FT, 5.0 REB, 4.0 AST, 0.7 STL, 16.2 PER). The young sniper emerged as a rookie stud during his team’s Finals run through the Bubble, and after dealing with injuries/COVID last season has made a sizable leap in this, his third season in the Association; the 22-year-old went from being on the trade block to becoming an indispensable part of Spoelstra’s rotation, logging career-highs in a slew of categories including points (20.7), field goal percentage (44.7%), three-point percentage (39.9%), and assists (4.0), all the while becoming the first sixth man since the early 1990s to average over twenty points per game. Though he was rather quiet in Sunday’s victory (6 points on 3-of-11 shooting), the rest of the Heat showed up in waves at FTX Arena. As we stated earlier, Miami’s advantage grew gradually throughout the first half, with no one figure contributing more to the cause than (sharpshooter) Duncan Robinson (10.9 PTS, 39.9% FG, 37.2% 3FG, 83.6% FT, 2.6 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.5 STL, 10.6 PER), who singlehandedly sniped the Hawks out of the arena, with TWETNY-SEVEN points on a torrid 9-of-10 shooting (90.0%), including 8-of-9 from beyond the arc (88.9%), 3-of-4 coming in that aforementioned second quarter outburst. Along with Tucker (4-of-4 3FG), the 27-year-old utterly demolished Atlanta’s defense, as the hosts shot a combined 18-of-38 from downtown (47.4%), outscoring the visiting side by a whopping TWENTY-FOUR points. However, what we saw on Sunday was nothing new from the top three-point shooting side in the NBA (37.9%), and neither was their penchant for getting after their opponents on the defensive end of the court. Spoelstra’s troops pressured Atlanta throughout the afternoon, harassing them relentlessly to the tune of EIGHTEEN turnovers which in turn led to seventeen points. Butler was enjoying himself quite a bit, filling the stat sheet with twenty-one points on an efficient 9-of-15 shooting (60.0%), six rebounds, four assists, and three steals, while Tucker added sixteen points and five rebounds. This was also a positive performance for an offense that can get bogged down in the halfcourt at times; with the game played at a slow pace (9 combined fast break points), the home side executed masterfully, assisting on a healthy THIRTY-FIVE of their forty-three field goals, with six different players dishing out three or more dimes. With that said, there are a few things that they’re going to need to clean up moving forward, for they won’t always be able to count upon their three-point shooting to overwhelm their opponents. Frist, Spoelstra no doubt lamented their fifteen turnovers, which the Hawks parlayed into twenty-two points. The Heat struggled in this department all year long in committing the third-most turnovers in the NBA (14.6). They also couldn’t help fouling Atlanta, which while being something that the birds are got at drawing, is also a weakness for Miami; Butler & Co committed 20.5 personal fouls per game (25th Overall), and the visitors shot nine more free-throws on Sunday, making twelve more to boot. Granted, part of this is a byproduct of their aggressive nature defensively, but there will be times when they must play more controlled.