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LeBron James and the Heat look to start the season 6-0 tonight, but the Hawks stand in their way.
After crushing the Charlotte Bobcats by 39 points to move to 5-0 on the season, the Heat will face a more formidable foe in the Atlanta Hawks on Monday. In the Heat's second pair of back-to-backs in the early going, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh take on the Hawks' trio of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford in a battle of Eastern Conference powers.
The Hawks are off to a good start of their own, winning three of their first four games, but they haven't exactly been battle tested with wins against the New Jersey Nets (twice) and Washington Wizards. In Atlanta's final game of the 2011 calendar year, the Houston Rockets beat them by 11 points.
Are the Hawks a better test for the Heat than the Mavericks and Celtics? Is Al Horford a better big man for the Heat than Chris Bosh? Is Jeff Teague better than Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole? Are the Hawks and the Heat going to finish in the top four in the East? Will the Heat win by double-digits on Monday night?
In another edition of Heat Index's 5-on-5 series, our stable of writers play some "Fact or Fiction" with some of the biggest storylines heading into Monday's Southeast tilt.
1. Fact or Fiction: Atlanta has been Miami's toughest opponent yet.
Tom Haberstroh, Heat Index: Fact. I'm not willing to say that the Hawks are better than the Mavericks or Celtics this season, but Paul Pierce was sidelined against the Heat and you couldn't have picked a better time to play the disheveled Mavericks than on opening day. Although the Hawks' cake schedule thus far isn't too inspiring.
Bret LaGree, Hawks blog Hoopinion: Fiction. The Hawks feasted on the Nets and Wizards in the first three games but the team has a history of overwhelming less talented teams before struggling to score against the league's best teams. This week's schedule (two games against both the Heat and the Bulls) will either confirm or challenge the team's established identity.
Kevin Pelton, Basketball Prospectus and ESPN Insider: Fact. I'm not convinced the Hawks are going to be a better team than the Celtics at season's end, but factoring in Paul Pierce's absence and Atlanta's terrific start, you'd have to be a bigger Timberwolves believer than even I am to argue otherwise.
Michael Wallace, Heat Index: Fact. But that depends on which Hawks show up tonight: Jekyll or Hyde. Their most recent appearance in Houston aside, the Hawks quietly have gotten off to a good start. They have a solid roster with a nice combination of athletes and skilled players. The problem has always been that you never know what to expect from these guys. Few teams in the league have the potential or gall to go from bust to beast - and back - like Atlanta.
Brian Windhorst, Heat Index: Fact, they are the most complete opponent yet. Later this season playing the Mavericks, Celtics and Wolves will likely be more demanding than what the Heat faced in the first week of the season. The Hawks never seem to change, year over year. They've got plenty of talent and can beat anyone. They are the closest thing to a finished product Heat have seen yet.
2. Fact or Fiction: Miami would be better with Al Horford than Chris Bosh.
Haberstroh: Fact. But I really wanted to say "push." Horford's passing, defense and versatility would fit incredibly in this Heat team, but Bosh's scoring on the block is essential to the Heat's attack. It's close, but I think adding Horford would mean more minutes for Udonis Haslem and LeBron at the 4 and less burn for Juwan Howard. That's no small thing.
LaGree: Fiction. The inability to create his own shot is the only thing keeping Horford from being a true franchise player. Despite his scoring efficiency, passing, and defense Horford simply doesn't produce enough points to make him the equal of Bosh. Yet.
Pelton: Fact. A couple of factors tip the scales in Horford's favor. His ability to play center would give Erik Spoelstra more lineup flexibility. Horford is also slightly superior when it comes to controlling the paint on defense. Bosh's big advantage -- his ability to create more shots for himself -- is relatively unimportant on the Heat, so Horford is the better fit.
Wallace: Fiction. I'm no stickler for statistical analytics, but you'd think I stayed at the Tom Haberstroh Inn last night on this one. Horford, not Dirk Nowitzki, led the league last season in efficiency on mid-range jumpers from 16-23 feet. So what does that tell me? Not much other than the Heat already have a skilled, jump-shooting big man who prefers not to play center. So the grass may not necessarily be greener on the other side.
Windhorst: Fiction. Bosh has more polish at this point of his career than Horford does. He also fits in with what the Heat do.
3. Fact or Fiction: Jeff Teague is the best point guard in this game.
Haberstroh: Fact. And that's not just because we walked the same halls of (the great) Wake Forest University, but because he's a Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers hybrid. He's a bullet in the open court, can shoot and isn't afraid to score the rock. Did you know Teague led the Hawks in playoff PER last season? Now you do.
LaGree: Fact. Jeff Teague must have been jealous about all the opportunities Mario Chalmers had to lose the point guard job in Miami over the past three seasons. It took an injury to Kirk Hinrich for Teague to get a chance to start, but he got it, and he's not giving it up.
Pelton: Fact. This is sort of the opposite of the last question in that I'm not sure Miami would trade the Chalmers/Cole duo for Teague, but for most teams in the league the Hawks' point guard's ability to create off the dribble outweighs the perimeter shooting provided by the Heat's pair. Teague has carried over his strong postseason with quality play as a starter.
Wallace: Fact. Having filled in for John Hollinger as the go-to man on the unofficial Hawks Index during last season's playoffs, I saw Teague up close when he took over for the injured Kirk Hinrich. Teague stared down MVP Derrick Rose in the East semifinals and didn't flinch. Quickness. Athleticism. Vision. Shooting. Teague has it all. He'll soon have Hawks fans forgiving the team for mistakenly passing on Deron Williams and Chris Paul and taking Marvin Williams in that fateful draft a few years back.
Windhorst: Fact. But check back later. Teague is proving to be a nice draft pick and he's developed very nicely over the last two years. He's proven that he can be an effective scorer in addition to the having the modern-day requirement of being able to break down the defense with quickness. But Norris Cole has all the same talents plus a confidence that sets him apart. He's got a chance to change the equation if he keeps this up.
4. Fact or Fiction: The Heat and the Hawks are both top four seeds in East.
Haberstroh: Fiction. I'm not willing to bury the Celtics just yet and I'm a big believer in the Pacers this season so don't pencil in the Hawks in the top four just yet. Beat someone better than the Nets or the Wizards and then we can revisit.
LaGree: Fact. I think the Hawks will significantly outperform projections that don't know that Marvin Williams and Joe Johnson played hurt last season, or that Teague and Zaza Pachulia are qualified for bigger roles than they were given last season.
Pelton: Fiction. I know, Atlanta has the league's best point differential thus far. But it's been four games, and to call the Hawks' schedule so far soft would be charitable. Give them credit for taking care of business against lowly New Jersey and Washington, but we'll need to see them maintain that success against playoff-caliber foes before labeling this start legitimate.
Wallace: Fact. The Heat are certainly in the top-four mix. The Hawks definitely have the potential to compete with Miami, Chicago and Boston. But with the Celtics and Knicks always dealing with key injuries, and with the uncertainty in Orlando surrounding Dwight Howard, not only is a top-four spot up for grabs in the East, the Hawks could play their way into the top three. The ultimate question is whether the Hawks will ever break through their second-round playoff ceiling?
Windhorst: Fact. The Hawks are stable in a conference without much stability among the top 3-8 teams. They also probably have a trade to make with Josh Smith seeming destined to be moved at some juncture. I have the Hawks at the four seed right now.
5. Fact or Fiction: The Heat will win by more than 10 points tonight.
Haberstroh: Fiction. The Heat are on a back-to-back and the Hawks are well-rested. Yes, the Heat have the home-court advantage, but I see this as being a Heat win by a shade under double-digits.
LaGree: Fiction. The Hawks are deservedly heavy underdogs but, through offensive rebounding and not turning the ball over, they'll keep the game under 90 possessions and stay within striking distance of the Heat.
Pelton: Fact. If Atlanta is going to keep it close, I think it's going to be more along the lines of the fourth-quarter comebacks Dallas and Boston put together earlier this season than nailbiters against Charlotte and Minnesota. I expect the Hawks will have the Heat's attention and respect more than those lottery opponents.
Wallace: Fiction. We won't know for sure until we see just how the Hawks handled having New Year's Day off in South Beach before tonight's game. But this is a team, for all the reasons mentioned above, that can hang with the Heat from both an athletic and a skill standpoint. You could argue that Atlanta's bench is even better than Miami's. With every team in the league capable of making an obligatory run, it's hard to predict 10-point victories. Especially at this early and highly competitive stage of the season.
Windhorst: Fact. The Hawks were off on New Years while the Heat played. But the Hawks have also not played a quality opponent yet and they're about to get a full dose of the East's best team at the moment. Also, the Hawks have been in Miami for the last two nights, which is always a factor.