Unfortunately for Atlanta and their fans, the Hawks are going to face the Miami Heat in the first round of the NBA playoffs. This series will no doubt be the most hotly contested in the Eastern Conference's opening round.
The Heat are going to win their last four games to finish with a 48-34 record and earn the fifth seed. At the same time, the Hawks are going to split their last four games to finish 51-31.
They will tie the Celtics for the third best record in the East.
Okay, you are probably thinking that since the Hawks swept the Celtics 4-0 this season that they would win the tiebreaker, and then face the injury riddled Milwaukee Bucks in the first round.
To steal a phrase, “Not so fast my friend.” That makes too much sense.
The NBA tiebreaker system is going to make life much more difficult for the Hawks. The Celtics win the tiebreaker by winning the much easier Atlantic Division title. Yes, that makes very little sense. It should be head to head, but because of possible tie scenarios a few years ago, the NBA placed more importance on winning a division title.
The bad part for the Hawks is that the Heat are a dangerous basketball team right now. On the other hand, the Bucks have been damaged severely by Andrew Bogut’s gruesome elbow injury. Before the injury, the Bucks were a tougher match up for Atlanta, because of Bogut’s ability to score in the post, command a double team, and find open scorers like John Salmons, Jerry Stackhouse and Luke Ridnour.
Dwayne Wade is playing at a very high level. Even though he is coming off a knee injury, Jermaine O’Neal can score in the post, and he played well against the Hawks in stretches last year in the playoffs. Carlos Arroyo can score against the Hawks point guards off the dribble.
Here is a breakdown of the player matchups for this series from a Hawks perspective.
Mike Bibby vs. Carlos Arroyo
Bibby is solid and experienced. He directs the offense and gets the Hawks into their set plays, but he is not going to create much offense off the dribble. He has not shot the ball well this year, but he is a clutch shooter. If the Hawks need a 3-point dagger late in the fourth quarter, Bibby will respond.
After a somewhat short and turbulent time with Rafer Alston at point guard, Arroyo has steadied the ship. He is playing with a lot of confidence. He scored 15 points in the Heat’s win Wednesday night against Philadelphia.
He and Bibby are more offensive type players than defensive. Arroyo still has the edge in quickness and he can beat Bibby off the dribble.
It will be interesting to see if Jamal Crawford’s length bothers Arroyo, when Crawford plays more minutes at the point guard spot.
Joe Johnson vs. Dwayne Wade
Wow, here we have two of the mostly highly coveted free agents for the Summer 2010 Sweepstakes. In last year's playoffs Joe Johnson struggled, but he came up huge in the Hawks’ game seven victory. He played one of the great games in recent Hawks’ history. Likewise, D-Wade was up and down for the series.
Wade is playing at a higher level right now, while Super Joe is injured. Joe is getting some rest, which is going to be beneficial for this series. He will be playing 40-plus minutes per night. The great part for the Hawks is that there is so much time between games, that the starters can log big minutes.
Joe has been the more consistent player this year, but Wade is by far the more dynamic. Wade could go for 35-plus points every night. For fans, this matchup is going to be awesome because these all-stars will guard each other for long stretches of games. Give a very small edge to Dwayne Wade.
Marvin Williams vs. Quentin Richardson
Both of these guys are enigmas. The series could come down to which one plays better, and that should scare both coaches. Williams is the Hawks best defender on players like Lebron James who have the ability to drive to the hoop, but Richardson likes to hang around the 3-point line.
That will be a tough cover for Williams, especially if D-Wade goes to work on the perimeter.
On the other end of the floor, Williams has a distinct size advantage, but he is not good enough to take advantage in the low post. Richardson won't have trouble keeping Williams in front of him. Marvin has been struggling shooting the 3 this season.
Marvin has to pound the boards. He has to be a double digit rebounder in this series. The Hawks need for Williams to play with more confidence on the offensive end. The slight edge here goes to Williams.
Josh Smith vs. Michael Beasley
Smith and Al Horford are keys to the Hawks winning this series. They have to dominant in the lane and the boards.
The new and improved Josh Smith should have a clear overall advantage over Beasley. Smith has been so good in the post lately, that he almost merits a double team on certain nights. If Smith takes his time and uses his strength, Beasley will be in trouble.
On defense, Smith matches up with Beasley. He can go out on the floor, guard and take away Beasley’s ability to drive to the rim. Here is the problem. If Smith loses focus, Beasley is an explosive scorer that can carry the Heat for 12-minute stretches of games. That might be enough to keep games close until crunch time for Wade to takeover.
Al Horford vs. Jermaine O’Neal
Horford was injured last year in this playoff series and the Heat attacked the frontline. The Heat posted up O’Neal at the beginning of each game to take advantage of his size on the block. Basically, Horford has to move O'Neal off the block and make him a jump shooter.
This year a healthy Horford has to overwhelm the Heat bigs with energy and aggressiveness. He should be so active that O’Neal feels 48 years old after each game, maybe even during each game.
There is big, big money on the line for Horford in this series. Everyone in the NBA respects his demeanor and his game. He is a budding superstar that can take the next step with a monster performance in this playoff series. Horford clearly should get the better of this match up.
Hawks Bench vs. Heat Bench
Jamal Crawford is clearly the choice for NBA Sixth Man of the Year. Mo Evans has been playing very well for the Hawks in recent weeks. Zaza Pachulia can contribute 10 rebounds or miss two games of the series with the flu. He is hit or miss.
Joe Smith is old, but he reminds me of PJ Brown during the Celtics run two years ago. Smith might actually see more minutes than Pachulia in this series, because the Heat are likely to play a smaller lineup if O’Neal cannot play because of his balky knee.
For Miami, Udonis Haslem always has been an impact player in the playoffs.
Haslem will be on the floor in crunch time.
Mario Chalmers and Dorrell Wright have young legs and could be dangerous against the Hawks second unit. The problem for Miami is size off the bench. Just thinking about playing Joel Anthony has to give Coach Spoelstra an ulcer.
The Hawks have a slight advantage off the bench. The Hawks and their fans should get ready for another seven-game series that will come down to home court advantage again this year.
Wade versus Johnson in possibly their last games playing for their current franchises. The NBA is definitely where amazing happens in the playoffs.
This rematch will be fun with the Hawks winning again this year in seven games.