The Hawks travel to Miami to face the Heat on Sunday in the first game of the Eastern Conference’s 1-8 series. The Hawks entered the Play-In Tournament as the 9-seed and throttled the Hornets 132-103 before coming back from a 14-point deficit to beat the Cavaliers in Cleveland on Friday night to secure the 8-seed.
However, Clint Capela suffered a knee injury in that win over the Cavaliers, and with John Collins remaining out since March 11 with finger and foot injuries, the Hawks will be shorthanded in Game 1.
The Heat won three out of the four matchups between these teams in the regular season. However, the Hawks and their efficient offense enter this matchup as one of the hottest teams in the league, having won nine of their last 11 games.
Hawks Need To Hit From 3
The Hawks need Trae Young to have an efficient game as a scorer and facilitator while their shooters step up and make shots against a Heat defense that will give them opportunities from beyond the arc.
In the regular season, the Heat defense allowed the most 3-point attempts (41.9% of opponent shots, excluding garbage time per Cleaning The Glass) of any team in the NBA. However, the Heat also held their opponents to the lowest 3-point percentage (34.1%) of any team in the league. The Hawks shoot 3s at the 17th-highest rate (35.8% of shots) but do so efficiently as their 37.8% accuracy ranks third in the NBA.
Expect the Heat to switch pretty much everything to limit their rotations as much as possible and stay close to the Hawks’ shooters. With the Hawks’ two best rim threats, Capela and Collins, likely out for Game 1, expect the Heat to stay at home on Hawks shooters even more than usual.
The Hawks will need Young, Kevin Huerter, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari to be accurate from beyond the arc and attack the weak points in the Heat’s defense (Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro and to a lesser degree Max Strus) when they get those players on switches.
With the Heat playing without a true power forward most of the time (or at least an undersized power forward in P.J. Tucker, Jimmy Butler or Caleb Martin), Gallinari should have a size advantage and get off shots in his spots, whether he gets a switch or not. The question for Gallinari is whether he will get played off the court on the other end.
The Hawks’ half-court offense against the Heat half-court defense will be a fascinating strength-on-strength matchup. The Hawks led the NBA in half-court Offensive Rating (101.1) while the Heat ranked fifth in half-court Defensive Rating (92.0).
Healthy Heat Looking To Create Space
Bam Adebayo will return from health and safety protocols in time for Game 1, and Tucker will also be ready for Sunday after missing the final few regular season games due to a calf injury. so the Heat will have their full squad available. If they hope to beat the Hawks and cover, they need to keep their spacing offensively.
While the Hawks have an elite offense, their defense is poor as they finished the season ranking 26th (114.8) in Defensive Rating (excluding garbage time, per Cleaning The Glass). If the Heat play with good spacing and move the ball well, like they have for the majority of the season even when shorthanded, they should have success in getting quality shots against the Hawks.
The Heat will likely play Martin and Tucker on Young so that Young’s defender and Bam Adebayo can switch on 1-5 pick-and-rolls. This means that Tucker and Martin will be spaced in the corner and should have open corner 3-point opportunities throughout the game.
Just remember how many wiiiiide open 3s Lauri Markkanen got on Friday night against the Hawks (he went 6-of-12 on those). Players like Tucker and Martin along with the Heat’s best shooters like Robinson and Strus will need to capitalize on these looks.
With better spacing, it will be harder for the Hawks to recover when the Heat get mismatches and players like Butler, Herro or Adebayo drive to the rim. The Hawks’ issues in these spots will be further emphasized by the absences of Capela and Collins inside.
Backup center Onyeka Okongwu is a more versatile defender than both Capela and Collins, but at 6-foot-8, he isn’t the rim protector and rebounder that Capela is.
The Hawks have one of the elite offenses in the league led by one of the best scorers and facilitators in the league in Young. But the Heat have the personnel to make life as tough as anyone on Young.
With Capela and Collins both likely out (this is worth monitoring as the injury report has not yet been made public at the time of writing early Saturday afternoon), the Hawks won’t have the same rim pressure on offense, and they also won’t get as many second-chance opportunities without their rebounding.
Their absences will also hurt the Hawks defensively as Gorgui Dieng and Gallinari will be forced to play more minutes and will be vulnerable in drop coverage against Heat shooters.
Expect the Heat to win this series and take the opener on Sunday in Miami. You can parlay them to win this series with the Warriors, Bucks and Suns to win theirs at even money. I’ll be backing the Heat at -6.5 (with value down to -8) as they should have the upper hand against the shorthanded Hawks in this matchup.
At the time of writing, first basket props aren’t live, but I’ll be looking hard at Tucker to score the first basket and Tucker 3-pointer as the first basket method when those lines drop.
Pick: Heat -6.5 | P.J. Tucker First Basket