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Can The Hawks Threaten The HEAT In Playoffs?
Posted By Lang Greene On March 29, 2013 @ 12:08 pm In Main Page,NBA | No Comments
The end of the regular season is near and the beginning of playoffs loom on the horizon with only five spots left to be clinched. It’s also the time of year to start evaluating who are the true contenders, which teams are legit sleeper candidates and identify what squads are the pretenders in the field.
In the Eastern Conference, Miami HEAT are the presumptive favorites to make a third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals and win their second straight title. The HEAT’s recent 27 game winning streak put the league on notice and most believe the only threat in the East to their march toward another crown is the Indiana Pacers.
However, is there another team in the conference who can derail Miami’s quest to repeat?
Today we’ll evaluate whether a sleeper team like the Atlanta Hawks could pull off a monumental upset like the 2007 Golden State Warriors or the 1994 Denver Nuggets who both toppled a highly favored top seed.
In the NBA playoffs, top tier teams have faltered to unheralded squads under the bright lights, the question is can the Hawks add their name to the short list?
The Case For Atlanta
The Atlanta Hawks are one of the league’s truest enigmas. When it comes to postseason play, in recent years, the team has either defied the skeptics or given their critics another valid point to use against them. The 2008 Hawks squad, a sub .500 bunch, pushed the eventual champion and overwhelming favorite Boston Celtics to seven games in the first round of postseason play. The following two seasons, with expectations for the franchise increasing steadily, the team would be swept unceremoniously in the second round of the playoffs. But in 2011, Atlanta pulled off a major first round upset by defeating the Orlando Magic who were then led by All-Star center Dwight Howard.
The point here is a simple one.
The Hawks will be making their sixth consecutive playoff appearance this season and while Joe Johnson, a big piece of those runs, now plays in Brooklyn the unit is still led by former All-Star Al Horford and Josh Smith who were both on the 2008 squad which started their own run. With Horford and Smith leading the show and head coach Larry Drew roaming the sidelines the Hawks have plenty of postseason experience to their credit and won’t be the proverbial deer in the headlights come playoff time.
The question is, does Atlanta have what it takes to dethrone a juggernaut like the Miami HEAT armed with LeBron James who just seems to be entering the beginning of his prime years?
For Atlanta, it all starts with the play of Horford and Smith.
The point guard and center position are the weaknesses to the armor most refer to when discussing the HEAT. The Hawks are armed with a two-time All-Star selection at center in Horford. The former University of Florida standout will enter the postseason arguably playing the best basketball of his career averaging 20.7 points and 11.4 rebounds on 56 percent shooting from the floor in 21 games since the All-Star break. Horford has been unselfish, sometimes to a fault, throughout his career but since the All-Star break the center is hoisting close to 17 shots per night and has virtually become a double-double machine.
At power forward Josh Smith remains one of the most talented players in the league without an All-Star appearance to his credit. Smith also has played significantly better on the road all throughout the season which will become even more important during the playoffs.
At point guard, Jeff Teague continues his maturation and has developed into a formidable threat. The evidence lies in Teague’s ability to get teammates involved more than ever this season. In 69 games this season, Teague has dished out double digit assists in 15 contests compared to just three all of last season (66 games). It’s also worth pointing out Teague is averaging an impressive 16.3 points and 7.6 assists per game following the All-Star break heading into the playoffs.
Veteran defenders such as DeShawn Stevenson and Dahntay Jones are on the roster and both will likely get the tough task of trying to slowdown James and Dwyane Wade in a potential series. The prospect of stopping Wade and James is slim, but both Stevenson and Jones have shown a consistent knack for getting key stops late in games and are a luxury to have in the lineup for situations like this.
What is unfavorably impacting Atlanta as we approach the postseason is the absence of reserve center Zaza Pachulia on the interior. Pachulia is out indefinitely while suffering from a recurring Achilles problem and the team is missing the toughness he provides on the inside. The absence of high scoring guard Lou Williams (torn ACL) has forced the team to put rookie John Jenkins into play much earlier than anticipated. To Jenkins’ credit he has maximized his opportunity and performed strong, but relying on a rookie to play a big role during a playoff series is always a risk.
The Case For Miami
Miami swept the season series versus the Hawks this season, 4-0, and the last two contests were both decided by double digits (13 and 17 respectively). In fact, since James, Wade and Chris Bosh became a trio the HEAT have compiled an impressive 10-2 record versus their Southwest Division rival.
At the top of the Miami’s lineup is James who is poised to win his fourth Most Valuable Player award this season. While some would say James’ numbers haven’t been as dominant versus the Hawks this season (if you call putting up 22/7/8 not as dominant), the fact remains come playoff time it’s hard to envision Kyle Korver, Stevenson and Jones stopping him. The Hawks have been successful playing Smith on James at times, but that matchup weakens Atlanta and could lead to foul trouble to one of their guys they need to be playing major minutes.
The presence of Wade cannot be underestimated as well. While most believe the former Finals MVP has lost a step in his game, his play post All-Star break this season has been exceptional and even more importantly efficient. At 52 percent, Wade is shooting a career high from the field this season and is a proven late game performer.
The HEAT also have a long list of still productive reserves who know their role within the framework of the team. Guys like Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller and Chris Anderson have all put up gaudy numbers elsewhere but have each merged into just the right support system for Bosh, James and Wade.
The HEAT are 41-2 when they score 100 points or more on the season and the Hawks have a penchant for allowing opponents to score more than 100 on any given night. Miami has also been more dominant versus opposition above .500, going 25-12 on the year. While the Hawks have struggled with the league’s elite going 17-20 on the campaign.
The play of Bosh will be a wildcard come playoff time. The veteran has struggled to find a rhythm post All-Star break but has generally been a strong postseason performer throughout his career. With Bosh on his game, the Hawks will be forced to play either Horford or Smith on the veteran and this increases the risk of foul trouble.
The conventional wisdom would lead you to believe the HEAT would steamroll right past Atlanta in a potential matchup. But as stated earlier, the Hawks have consistently shown the ability to make things interesting when entering a series as a huge underdog.
But think about this for a moment.
Since January 12, a span of 37 games, Miami has lost just four contests by a combined total of 26 points. To put this in the proper perspective, the last three Hawks losses this month were by a combined total of 31 points. Miami has been extremely dominant in their quest to repeat during the latter stages of the season.
Here’s a key item to note. Miami hasn’t been unbeatable in playoff action in recent years and have often times had to work themselves out of postseason funks to advance. Contrary to the mainstream opinion, the Hawks have enough talent and postseason experience to unexpectedly push the HEAT to six games in a potential series between the two teams. But at the end of the day, no matter how you slice it up, it remains hard to fathom how the Hawks could pull off one of the league’s historical upsets for the ages.
Got to roll with Miami here.
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