First, to sort out the seeds:
The Hawks lead the Heat by three-and-a-half games for fourth in the Eastern Conference Playoff race. With only 11 games left to go for Atlanta and 12 for Miami, it is going to be difficult for the Heat to overtake the Hawks. Philadelphia could sneak into the fifth spot, but I think that D-Wade will carry the Heat to enough wins to set up a great first-round matchup with the Hawks.
The Hawks have won eight of their last nine contests and have largely solidified their position. They have a tough three-game home stand this week with the San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics, and L.A. Lakers coming to Philips Arena.
The pressure will be on to come up with at least two wins; I actually like them against the Spurs and the Celtics.
For the Heat, D-Wade sat out last week’s game versus the Celtics, and Jermaine O’Neal missed last night’s game with a bruised right hip. Supposedly, O’Neal "could have played if it was a Playoff game" and is expected to play Wednesday night.
Both of these teams are very good at home this season which means the series probably will go six or seven games.
Check out this preview of the player matchups for a Hawks-Heat series. I'd say the Hawks clearly have the advantage at several positions, but the Heat have D-Wade, who is playing at an MVP level.
Atlanta head coach Mike Woodson will have to decide whether to let D-Wade score 40 points per night and hold down the other players or to double Wade when he has the ball (or when he comes off ball screens) and make the other players beat the Hawks.
Mike Bibby vs. Mario Chalmers
Will the Hawks be able to re-sign Bibby this summer? I really hope so; this guy has solidified a position that has tormented Hawks’ fans for the past decade.
Just think about where this team would be if Acie Law was the starting point guard for 2008-09. Only Billy Bob Thornton’s character in the movie Armegeddon could adequately describe that scenario.
Bibby has hit big shots all year for this team. His defense is a liability, but not against this particular opponent.
Chalmers is a solid rookie who is clearly going to be an above-average NBA player. I would take him over Acie Law right now, but Chalmers is a rookie.
The Playoffs are a whole different level of intensity; the preparation by opposing teams is much more specific. I see Mario struggling when the Hawks force him to make big jump shots in the fourth quarter.
Joe Johnson vs. Dwayne Wade
On Monday night, D-Wade broke the Heat's single-season scoring record; interestingly enough, that was a record he had set in the 2006 season.
Remember that season? Yeah, that was when the Heat won the NBA title.
The two All-Star shooting guards probably will not defend each other very much during the series, but in the last few minutes of games, they might match up.
Johnson is the Hawks' best perimeter defender, but making him guard Wade from the jump is a mistake.
Joe is one of the best all-around players in the NBA, but he is in a "second tier," while D-Wade is one of the elite players. He was the best player on a championship team.
The extra days off in the first round will help both coaches because they can play these two 40-plus minutes per game.
I can sum up the way I feel about these two players very easily: I like Joe Johnson, but I would trade him, Josh Smith, Acie Law, and any fourth player on the Atlanta roster for Wade.
If Joe plays great in the fourth quarter like he did in the 2008 postseason against the Celtics, he will almost be able to match Wade. That will be enough for the Hawks to win a very tightly contested series.
Maurice Evans vs. Jamario Moon
Since Marvin Williams’ injury, the Hawks have actually been playing better basketball; the blurry roles for each of the starters have become clearer. If Williams returns from his back injury, I see him coming off the bench.
As for Evans and Moon, they probably will spend more time guarding the other team’s best player than guarding each other.
Offensively, Moon can explode for big nights, but Evans is a more consistent player. Besides, the Heat are not going to push the ball in transition enough for Moon to be a big offensive factor in this series.
Evans is a veteran that started in the Playoffs last year with Orlando and is capable of making big three-point shots. If Wade guards him, he'll likely leave Mo open so as to go for steals and blocks.
My question is whether or not Evans will have any legs or confidence left after D-Wade rings him up for 35 points each night.
I bet at least one game in this series will come down to Joe Johnson driving and kicking to Evans for a game winning three. Will he make it?
Josh Smith vs. Udonis Haslem
At first glance, the Hawks seem to have the advantage. Smith has elevated his play recently and can change the game on both ends with his dunking ability and shot-blocking skills. But Haslem is a solid veteran that has a ton of playoff experience.
Udonis is the guy on the Heat that will double team the post or maybe Joe Johnson on the perimeter at the end of the game. He has a knack for getting deflections and steals and is also the perfect compliment in the post to O'Neal.
He will knock down jump shots from the corners and the high post area. If Josh Smith leaves him to block shots, he will make the Hawks pay with garbage baskets and jumpers.
But the normal problem for Smith is guarding his man off the dribble, and that will not be a factor in this series. If Haslam is dribbling, the Hawks will be smiling.
If Smith attacks the basket in transition offense and in the Hawks' sets, Haslem will not be able to stop him. Based on J-Smoove’s raw skills and new-found maturity (that Coach Woodson prays sticks), I am giving the Hawks the edge.
Al Horford vs. Jermaine O’Neal
This battle for the paint is the most important from the Hawks' point of view. Can Horford stop O’Neal’s offensive game one-on-one in the low post?
If O’Neal can start off games with some scoring, that means the Hawks will have to double him to give Horford help. Whether or not this is necessary will somewhat dictate Atlanta's whole defensive game plan.
Horford has been playing great since the All-Star break; he is a dominant force on the defensive boards. Last year, Horford responded well to postseason pressure, and his numbers improved in those games.
The Hawks are likely to start games by throwing him the ball in the low post. He has a limited package of moves, but his athleticism should be hard for O’Neal or Jamaal Magloire for that matter to handle.
This pivotal match up looks even. The man that plays better probably decides the series.
The Hawks' Bench vs. the Heat's Bench
Overall, the Heat have a younger and more athletic group off the pine.
Michael Beasley is a dangerous scorer, but if Marvin Williams is healthy, the Hawks have a perfect counter to Beasley. Atlanta's forwards are bigger and longer than Beasley, which should give him a ton of trouble on both ends of the floor. He is not committed enough on the defensive end of the floor to guard Josh Smith, Al Horford, or Williams for that matter.
Flip Murray is the main reserve scorer for the Hawks. Any point production from the other players is purely a bonus for Coach Woodson.
I like the Hawks' options on the defensive end. Mario West is a lock-down defender that should play more than Acie Law. After all, Acie has been injured and missed the past two games, but no one has really noticed his absence. That is not a good sign for his career.
Zaza gives the Hawks energy and toughness. He has had some huge rebounding games this year.
The Heat are going with Luther Head as their back-up point with Daquean Cook and James Jones playing minutes on the wings. The best move for the Heat is to go with Wade at the point for some parts of the game, as Cook and Jones are very athletic wing players with range. They could potentially be trouble.
Jamaal Magloire started last night in place of Jermaine O’Neal. Battles between him and Zaza could be intriguing, if somewhat lacking in skill.
The Hawks have a better team with more veteran players in key positions.
However, D-Wade is clearly the best player on the court and he is likely to play over 40 MPG.
With a bunch of days off in the first round, Wade should have no trouble logging so much burn while still playing at a high level.
Coach Woodson has to let Mo Evans play him straight-up until the fourth quarter. Then, the Hawks will have to double "Flash" and make someone else beat them.
The Hawks are a better rebounding and defensive team, but the Heat are more explosive offensively off the bench with younger and more talented players.
But as long as the Hawks and Mike Bibby shoot well from distance, the Hawks will win this series in a hard-fought six games.