The Atlanta Hawks have earned their playoff berth and playoff seeding this season. Unlike last season, no one can say that they backed into the 2009 playoffs. This team is firmly entrenched as the fourth best team in the Eastern Conference.
I wrote a breakdown of the player matchups for the Hawks versus Miami Heat playoff series about three weeks ago. Nothing really has changed in my thinking. Any fifth grader that follows the NBA knows that the main key to this series is Dwayne Wade and how the Hawks decide to try to attack him defensively. Without Wade, the Heat are a lottery team. He should finish second to LeBron James in the NBA MVP voting.
However, the Hawks clearly have a better eight-man rotation than the Heat. The Hawks also have the benefit of playing in the playoffs last year. The problem for the Hawks is that an NBA playoff series can be dominated by one player. If Wade goes off for 50-plus points in game one, and the Heat win in Philips Arena, the Hawks will be facing their toughest challenge in a season filled with adversity.
To beat the Heat, the Hawks have to answer five key questions:
1. What is the injury status of Marvin Williams?
The former second overall pick in the NBA draft is in his contract year. He elevated his game this year on both ends of the floor. His three-point shooting and defensive efforts were essential to the Hawks’ quick start to the season.
However, Marvin’s back is out of whack. He has not played much in the past six weeks. I have been arguing for him to come off the bench since last summer. If he can score off the bench, use his length to bother the Heat’s Michael Beasley, and rebound, the Hawks should win this series.
2. Can Jermaine O’Neal be a low post scoring option for the Heat?
The Al Horford vs. Jermaine O’Neal matchup in the low post is very intriguing. Most of the time, playoff basketball slows down and the offense has to rely more on set plays. The Heat need to generate some easy baskets in the post by getting the ball to O’Neal. Horford will have to guard him in the post.
I like Horford’s energy and defensive intensity. He has to push O’Neal off the block and make him shoot face up jumpers. If O’Neal can spin into the lane and shoot short hook shots, the Hawks are in trouble. The Hawks cannot afford to try to double in the post and take away Wade on the perimeter. If O’Neal reaches the 20-point mark in a game, the Heat probably win.
On the other hand, the Hawks need to establish Horford on the block on the offensive end. He has been inconsistent this season with his post moves. If he is aggressive, “The Boss” should be able to score on O’Neal, who likely will play behind in the post and let Horford catch the ball on the block.
3. Which version of Josh Smith shows up for this series?
Since the Marvin Williams injury, Smith has started to play good basketball. He is doing the little things and he is scoring and rebounding. His defense is better. He has taken charges and played the passing lanes. He has kept his man from penetrating (for the most part). J-Smoove also has become a playmaker. He is an above average passer who delivers the ball to perimeter shooters on the money. Guys can just catch the pass and shoot.
Smith seems to have realized that he can score 30 points in a game if he takes the ball to the basket and makes his free throws. He occasionally jacks up a terrible jump shot, but those miscues have become fewer and fewer. My problem with J-Smoove has been that for every good thing on the court he does a bad thing. If he makes more positive plays than negative, the Hawks can beat the Heat and challenge the Cavs in the second round.
4. Can Mike Bibby continue to make big shots at the end of games?
Bibby has been a rock for Hawks coach Mike Woodson this season. The other night I watched him direct the offense and call out plays at the end of a crucial Hawks win. Plus, all year long, Bibby has made clutch three-point shots at the end of games.
The Heat defense should focus on Joe Johnson in end of game situations. Johnson was dynamite in last year’s playoffs and scored repeatedly on the Boston Celtics in the fourth quarter of games. This year he has Bibby to pass to for the open jump shot.
It is possible that Bibby will have three to four shots in this series that will decide games. I hope that he makes them.
5. Can the Hawks slow down Dwayne Wade?
Wade cannot be stopped, but he can be contained. Hold him to 30 and make him earn those points by not giving up dunks and layups. Slow down the Heat’s transition game by scoring on the offensive end.
I have been critical of the Hawks’ defensive approach to guarding the screen and roll play all season. There are probably about 12 ways to guard this play, but the Hawks seem to only switch the play. Switching works if the offensive player with the ball is hesitant to attack the bigger defender off the dribble.
D-Wade will not have that problem. He will attack the Hawk Bigs, score, and probably get fouled.
The Hawks have to mix up how they guard the screen and roll, depending on the players involved. If Jermaine O’Neal is coming to set the screen for D-Wade, the Hawks should double Wade. Make him give the ball up to O’Neal on the perimeter. O’Neal can make the outside shot, but can the Heat beat you with him shooting jumpers? I don’t think so.
If Udonis Haslem is coming to set the screen, the Hawks do their normal switch. I think that Josh Smith is athletic enough to guard Wade on some possessions. If Smith focuses, gets into a defensive stance, and gives Wade a step, Smith can keep Wade from getting all the way to the basket. Smith could force him into taking jump shots off the dribble with a hand in his face.
Of all the playoff matchups in the Eastern Conference, this series shapes up as the most competitive. It looks like it will be the superstar player leading his team versus a deeper, more veteran Hawks squad. My prediction is that the Hawks with home court advantage will win this series in seven games.