The Miami Heat will try and continue to stay on the winning track tonight, but this is no mere tuneup game as their weekend match with the New Orleans Hornets was. The Heat have a divisional battle tonight, against the red-hot Atlanta Hawks.
Atlanta has won nine of its last 10 games, and is only half a game behind Miami in the Southeast Division. For a team that lost its top scorer in Joe Johnson over the summer, they are playing as though he never left.
Miami are still the defending champions, however, and not to be taken lightly. Even after losses to the Washington Wizards and New York Knicks, they are a team capable of lighting up the scoreboard in a short amount of time and making a game difficult for any opposing team.
The stage is thus set for a close game, with the Heat's red-hot offense going up against the fiery defense of the Hawks.
Time: Monday, December 10th, 7:30 p.m., EST
TV: Sun Sports, SportSouth
Records: Atlanta Hawks (12-5) vs. Miami Heat (13-5)
Betting Lines: Atlanta (+7), Miami (-7), via Bovada
Injuries: Kyle Korver (back, out), Devin Harris (ankle, expected to play)
Key Storyline: Are the Atlanta Hawks the Real Deal?
Atlanta traded top scorer Joe Johnson to the Brooklyn Nets during the offseason, and the deal left the team with a glaring hole at the 2. Devin Harris has been starting, but neither he nor Anthony Morrow have the same instantaneous scoring nature that Johnson brings to the table.
Today, Johnson seems like an afterthought. Atlanta has won on the back of great production from Josh Smith, Jeff Teague and Al Horford, and is shaping up to be one of the Eastern Conference's top defensive squads.
Whereas the Hawks were once a team that always got to a certain point in the playoffs, but then fell apart, they are now playing much better basketball than that. For the first time since the franchise's resurgence, they look ready to compete for a championship and not just merely show up in the playoffs.
The Miami Heat must be prepared for this game and not be cocky simply because they are the defending champions. They are a better team on paper, but need to establish their dominance from the get go and not take any possessions off.
This is a divisional game, and the Hawks are making a strong case to end the season as the ones in first place. They are not to be taken lightly, and Miami needs to have learned that lesson by tip-off tonight. Otherwise, their flaws will be all the more exposed.
Key Matchup: Chris Bosh vs. Al Horford
The Heat have lost five times this season, all to teams with good rebounding big men. This is because head coach Erik Spoelstra has chosen to use Chris Bosh as his starting center, even though he is more a scoring power forward than a defensive big man.
Bosh has posted good numbers this season, averaging 18.6 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, but has relied more on his jump shot than being a force in the paint and fully committed to defense, like most true centers.
As a result, he has struggled mightily against teams with more size or a stronger inside presence. Atlanta has just this in Al Horford, who at 6'10", 250 pounds could be a tough matchup for Bosh tonight.
Horford has also played some great basketball this season after a torn pectoral muscle limited him to 11 games in 2011-12, averaging 16.6 points and 10.2 rebounds. He is an inch shorter than Bosh, but his commitment to defense should help him keep the Heat's center in check.
Granted, Bosh scored 24 points when these two teams first met in Atlanta back on November 9, but Hawks coach Larry Drew will have a new plan entering this game. That will be to contain Bosh and take the Heat's center out of the game, thus giving Atlanta an extreme advantage.
Miami will also be prepared for this, so it will certainly be interesting to see how the battle of the big men plays out.
X-Factor: Jeff Teague
One of Atlanta's most surprising players in recent years has been Teague. He does not have much size at 6'2", 181 pounds, but plays with the passion of someone much bigger. The former Wake Forest Demon Deacon can be a force on offense, be it in shooting threes or driving the lane for a dunk.
Teague is also a great defender, averaging 1.8 steals to go with his 13.6 points and 6.8 assists on the season.
It is extremely important that he be in top form tonight, as his usual go-to guys in Horford and Josh Smith will have their hands full with their opponents. Teague will likely be covered by Mario Chalmers, who plays a similar type of game but minus the offense.
If Teague can find a way to slash past Chalmers' defense and create shots for himself, both in driving the lane and playing off the dribble, then Atlanta will have an even greater chance of winning. This young man is playing not just for his team, but also for his potential future. He is a restricted free agent next summer, and his highly improved play will attract the interest of many teams.
A great performance against the defending champion Heat will be the first step in attracting that attention, and Teague has the passion and drive to get past Miami's dominant nature. He must perform well tonight in order for his Hawks to have a chance at winning, and finally be taken seriously in the big picture of the Eastern Conference.
This game is going to come down to the wire, and the Atlanta Hawks will have the misfortune of being the birds standing on it. Miami will be fully locked in after losing to Washington and New York, and will use their weekend win against New Orleans as a motivating factor going forward.
This means playing a tough game against Atlanta once again, fighting past the pesky defenses of Smith and Teague en route to a victory that will likely be achieved in the game's final minutes.
Look for Bosh to have a tougher game with Horford covering him, and not to have as strong a scoring night as he did in Miami's first game against Atlanta. Josh Smith will do all he can to cover reigning MVP LeBron James, but that will prove to be too great a task for even one of the league's strongest defenders.
Dwyane Wade will be the hero of this game, taking full advantage of his mismatch against Devin Harris and having an explosive scoring night. Granted, the Hawks' defense is one of the best and will stop at nothing to contain Miami's offense, but the team as a whole is just too young.
Miami will go on a run in the second half, and have this game put away by the midway point of the fourth quarter. They will extend their lead in the division, but will know going forward that Atlanta is not a team to be taken lightly.
Miami Heat 97, Atlanta Hawks 92