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Atlanta comes into this series as virtually the same team that took the Celtics to seven games in the first round last year. They have played as a cohesive unit with a swagger that speaks of playoff experience and the belief that they can advance. Miami has been developing rookies and adding pieces around Dwyane Wade's MVP-caliber season, and might finally have everyone healthy enough at the same time to put their best team on the floor to start this series.
Atlanta's offense versus Miami's defense
The Hawks rank 10th in offensive efficiency, play at the NBA's sixth-slowest pace and are fourth in the league in fewest turnovers. This means they are very good when they settle in the half court, with Mike Bibby probing off the dribble to start most possessions. Joe Johnson is the primary option coming off pin-downs, ballscreens, spotting up and posting up any smaller defender. Al Horford is their primary post option, and he will look for shooters and cutters if he can't score off his power game. Marvin Williams will spot up, post up or drive off the catch, and Josh Smith will look to finish off drives or cuts to the basket.
Miami will counter Atlanta's versatility with constantly changing matchups, and will try to keep Wade off Johnson until the crucial fourth-quarter possessions. The Heat will rotate everyone from Jamario Moon to Yakhouba Diawara onto Johnson, and Mario Chalmers will try to use his superior size to slow Bibby. Wade will match with Bibby as well at times. The Heat do not double-team as much as other teams, as they trust their position defense, which is ranked 13th in defensive efficiency, and has held Atlanta under 43 percent from the field in all four of their previous meetings. Miami can get easy baskets off their defense, as they rank fifth in the NBA in steals and blocked shots, but they must put bodies on bodies to prevent the highlight putbacks and offensive rebounds that plagued them in their earlier losses to Atlanta.
Miami's offense versus Atlanta's defense
Miami plays at a similar pace (eighth-slowest), ranks 19th in offensive efficiency, and only San Antonio and Denver turn the ball over fewer times per game. Their effectiveness in the half court is keyed by Wade, and everyone else plays off his action. When he has the ball at the top of the floor, he is all about creating, and no scheme in the league can keep him from getting where he wants to go. Miami will also run pinch-post action to get Wade the ball coming out of the corner, as well as pin-down screening action out of various offensive sets. Jermaine O'Neal is their post option, but they try to establish Michael Beasley in his post game when he has a favorable matchup. Others spot up around those primary actions.
The Hawks are 11th in the league in defensive efficiency, and have demonstrated a solid consistency without getting the steals or blocks that Miami thrives on. Johnson will guard Wade much of the game, and look for a variety of double-teaming schemes to get him help. The Hawks let Wade go off for 35 in Miami's win in January, so Atlanta might look to double him on the catch early in this series to try to prevent any repeat performances. Both of these teams are near the bottom of the league in rebounding, but Atlanta had an overwhelming advantage on the boards in two of their three wins over the Heat this year, and the long rebounds by their guards can turn into the few easy baskets they might get.
Chalmers: The rookie, whom Miami stole in the second round, has been the perfect backcourt mate for Wade, leaving the creating to Wade and providing ball distribution, perimeter shooting and solid defense on opponents' point guards. He has made more 3s than any Heat starter, and is shooting 39 percent from 3 for March and April. He trails only Wade in minutes played. Chalmers had 12 points and six assists, while Bibby had only two points in Miami's win over Atlanta in January. Chalmers' ability to handle the playoff pressure, limit his turnovers and contribute steals and solid defense will play a big role if the Heat are to advance.
Bibby: The Hawks' third-leading scorer and best 3-point shooter, Bibby's playoff experience at the point will be a big factor in this series. Although he had 15 points and eight assists in the Hawks' Dec. 12 win over the Heat, Bibby was held to two points and then went scoreless in their next two meetings, making him 5-for-26 from the field in those three games. The Hawks will struggle if Bibby can't get things going early on offense, so look for him to be creating and shooting right from the start.
Wade: Wade's MVP-like season has been nothing short of spectacular, as the NBA's leading scorer has carried this young team and hung jaw-dropping offensive numbers. He has scored over 40 points 10 times, broken 50 three times and has had 17 games of 10 or more assists. In the last six weeks of the season, Wade has averaged over 33 points per game on 50 percent shooting, while shooting the highest 3-point percentage of his career. He will have the ball in his hands on every crucial possession in this series. But he can also defend and distribute, as he leads the Heat in assists and will guard Atlanta's leading scorer Joe Johnson at crunch time. Wade scored 35 points in the Heat's only win over Atlanta in January, but was held in check with only 21 points in each of the two losses in December and February.
The Heat have struggled to score points against the Hawks this year, so Miami will need Wade to put up huge offensive numbers if they expect to win the series. He is one of a handful of players in the NBA who can will his team to a series victory, and Atlanta wants no part of Wade if this series comes down to a Game 7.
Johnson: Atlanta's leader in scoring and assists, Johnson is the Hawks' go-to guy, and he can take advantage of any matchup the Heat throw at him. He might not see Wade defensively until the fourth quarter, but he will use his size and strength against Wade when they do match up, and he will guard Wade much of the time. He scored 21, 19, and 24 in the first three games against the Heat on only 42 percent shooting, making five 3s and getting to the foul line 16 times. He is one of the craftiest and most creative scorers in traffic in the NBA, and although Atlanta depends on his scoring, it is Johnson's defense on Wade that might play the larger role in determining this series.
Moon: He missed the last four games of the regular season with a groin injury, but has become the starter at small forward after arriving from Toronto in February. He gets his points in transition and finishes at the basket, and will need to utilize his athleticism against the bigger Hawks forwards. He shot 36 percent from 3 in March as he learned his floor-spacing role with Wade, but had only four points in the February loss to the Hawks. He saw a diminished role and production in the playoffs last year for Toronto.
Williams: He missed 16 games with back problems, and has been working his way back into starting form for only the past week. The Hawks' fourth-leading scorer provides size, athleticism and versatility in his combo forward role. He averaged 12 points on only 10-for-38 shooting, but got to the foul line 20 times in the first three games vs. Miami. He will see multiple offensive and defensive matchups throughout the series.
Haslem: Miami's starting power forward has missed the past six games with a cut on his hand that required six stitches, but expect him to be ready for battle in Game 1. Haslem is the Heat's dirty-work guy, providing defense, rebounding and toughness, as well as high-percentage shooting around the basket and in the mid-range. Haslem had eight points and 13 rebounds in the Heat's only win over the Hawks this season. He has played an important role in mentoring Michael Beasley, and Miami will need Haslem's leadership and NBA championship experience in every game of this series.
Smith: The Hawks' second-leading scorer and rebounder, he's also the guy who ignites the Hawks with his shot-blocking, steals and high-flying dunks. He had 15, 14 and 14 points on 50 percent shooting in the first three games vs. Miami, and can do his damage from inside and out. Smith is playing some of his best basketball of the season, as he averaged 25.3 points on 54 percent shooting in a three-game stretch in wins over Toronto, Milwaukee and Indiana in the last week of the season.
O'Neal: The oft-injured O'Neal was the center the Heat targeted to give them more scoring in the post and provide a secondary offensive option in the half court. The Heat's third-leading scorer hasn't put up big offensive numbers, but has been consistently in double figures while providing a shot-blocking presence on the defensive end. He had eight points and 11 rebounds in the Heat's loss to the Hawks in February. If Wade is struggling, O'Neal will be needed to take up the offensive slack. He is nursing a strained calf, and will have his hands full with the rugged tag team of Horford and Pachulia.
Horford: He is Atlanta's leading rebounder and the anchor of their interior defense. The Hawks are a different team without him in the lineup, as their only loss to the Heat came in January when Horford did not play. He returned in the February game with a monster 20-point, 22-rebound effort in the Hawks' second win over the Heat, and has established himself as the inside force for this series. He can post and score around the basket, and his toughness and rugged inside play could be the difference-maker if the Hawks advance.
Michael Beasley: His rookie year has been one of steady improvement, and Beasley might be pressed into more minutes or even a starting spot if more offensive production is needed to counter the size and athleticism of Smith and Williams. Beasley is playing his best basketball of the year, averaging 20.4 points on 55 percent shooting in the month of April, and averaged 16 points on 57 percent shooting in three games against the Hawks. The Heat will need more of the same in this series, and he is the matchup that could give Atlanta the most trouble.
Daequan Cook: He is Miami's best 3-point shooter and can score in bunches off the bench. He averaged 11.8 points in four games against the Hawks this year, but shot only 29 percent from 3 and is only shooting 25 percent from behind the arc in April.
Jamaal Magloire: The veteran backup center provides defensive presence and rebounding. Expect increased minutes if injuries continue to plague Miami's front line.
Yakhouba Diawara: Pressed into service with the injuries to Haslem and Moon, he could provide a few points and defensive minutes on Joe Johnson
Zaza Pachulia: He provides size and toughness and plays the role of enforcer when necessary. He can score inside 18 feet and will rebound and bring the hard fouls.
Mo Evans: Combo 2-guard/small forward who will start if Williams continues to come off the bench. He is a versatile defender and Atlanta's best percentage 3-point shooter.
Ronald "Flip" Murray: The Hawks' leading scorer off the bench; his role is to provide points for the second unit.
He has been in double figures in three of the four games vs. Miami, and will spell Bibby at the point at times.
Although Atlanta has won three of the four games these teams have played this season, Miami has yet to play with the lineup and rotation it will use in this series. If Miami's new additions can all come together at once, they might put D-Wade in a position to carry them through to the next round. But the Hawks have last year's first-round scare of Boston still fresh in their minds, and they have the better, more consistent team coming into the series. If Atlanta can limit the best player in the series to somewhat mortal status, the Hawks should advance.
Prediction: Hawks in 6
Mike Moreau is the director of basketball for the Pro Training Center and The Basketball Academy at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He also serves as an NBA analyst for Hoopsworld.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.