You probably already know this by now, but there are only three teams in the Eastern Conference with a winning record. Those teams? The Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, and Atlanta Hawks. The latter two teams square off on Monday night, but the matchup is hardly generating the buzz that accompanied last week's Heat-Pacers showdown. And with good reason.
The Eastern Conference is putrid and, the Hawks, despite a strong run of impressive offensive outings, aren't on anyone's national radar. A statement win to punctuate an already excellent streak of scoring outbursts wouldn't vault the Hawks into any sort of discussion focused around the league's upper echelon, but it would at least go a long way in proving to the uninformed national writers and observers of the basketball-watching world that there are more than two competent teams in the East.
Here to discuss how the Hawks can make that statement and, of course, tell us a few things we didn't know about the defending champs is Kevin Kraczkowski of SB Nation's Hot Hot Hoops.
Question (Daniel Christian): The defending champs seem almost unstoppable. They've had a great season so far, but do they have any particular weakness? How could the Hawks exploit that weakness?
Answer (Kevin Kraczkowski): If you dive into the stats and dig around a little, you'll find a glaring weakness in the rebound department. The Heat rank 30th across the NBA to this point in the season thus far. The front office knew this coming in, but didn't really do anything to fix it. The thing is, Miami has proved that this is a sustainable model, going so far as to win the NBA title last season despite their weakness on the boards.
The Heat signed Greg Oden, but he's expected to play eight to 10 minutes per contest once he's healthy enough to get back on the floor, and he's there more for his presence in the defensive paint, to block shots and scare opponents. His career statistics suggest that once healthy, and playing 10 minutes per game, Oden will score five points with four rebounds and a block. Oden, however, remains on the injured reserve through sometime prior to Valentine's Day.
The Hawks could exploit this by plugging Elton Brand into the lineup more than what they currently are, around 12 minutes per game. They already have Al Horford and Paul Milsap averaging more rebounds than Miami's leader, Chris Bosh. In addition, Atlanta also has Mike Scott, Pero Antic, and Demarre Carroll to further widen the gap in the paint. If the Hawks can keep their field goal percentage right around 50% (it's currently 50.5%) and outrebound the HEAT by a dozen or more boards, they'll steal this game.
Q: Dwyane Wade seemed to turn in a "vintage Wade" performance against Indiana. How has the league's best second banana held up health-wise so far this year? How important is a healthy Wade to this team, and how does it change Miami's dynamic when he's at or close to full strength?
A: It's true that his knees are not what they used to be, and he has been and will be sitting out the second game of back-to-back games against other than elite opponents to keep him fresh for the stretch run. He has sat out a total of 42 regular season games since the dawning of the "Big Three" era, including six this season, but the HEAT are 32-10 in those games.
Also consider the 67 playoff games the HEAT have played in in that span (66 of which Wade started). That all adds up to Wade appearing in 92 games per 82 game season (accounting for the 66 game lockout-shortened season) over three-plus years. Again, he's not going to eat up 40 minutes per game anymore, but he can still drive, sink daggers late, and play above the rim when he needs to. So, yes, Wade is older, but coach Erik Spoelstra is managing him (and his knees) with an eye on the three-peat. A full-strength Wade takes a great team and turns it into a perennial championship contender.
Q: Miami signed two former high-school and college standouts this offseason, Greg Oden and Michael Beasley. Neither have seen much NBA success, for different reasons, sure, but these guys were supposed to be perennial all-stars. Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case. How has Beasley helped/hurt Miami and does it appear Oden will be healthy enough to contribute at any time this season or in the playoffs?
A: Beasley's contributions, thus far, have been substantial (when playing). Currently sidelined with a hamstring issue, the mercurial scorer has added another level of depth to an already deep bench. He's averaging around 18 minutes per game, and is second only to LeBron James in points per 36 minutes, with 23.2. He's also crashing the boards over to the tune of 8.2 rebounds per 36 minutes. This mark ranks second only to Chris Andersen's 8.7 mark. Unfortunately, he's had to sit out the last seven games, but is expected back soon. His player efficiency rating ranks third on the team, at 22.0 (league average is 15.0).
I addressed this above, so forgive me for repeating myself. Oden is on track to return near the end of January, fully healthy and ready to contribute. He looked great in a very limited preseason appearance, but you can be sure the NBA's other contenders are paying attention. If he produces as expected, or better, if he can play 20 minutes per game instead of 10, he'll be a force that other teams will have to account for. That's no easy task for coaching staffs who are already preparing for the big three, B Eazy, future Hall-of-Famer Ray Allen, and the Birdman.
Q: The Hawks are one of the hottest offensive teams in the league. Miami is probably the best team in the league. What does Atlanta have to do to halt LeBron and the Heat? In other words, prediction time: Who wins and why?
A: One word: outrun.
If the Hawks can out hustle Miami on both ends of the court for the majority of the game, collecting rebounds as they go, they can sneak out of the American Airlines Arena with a hard-fought victory. I don't think that's what's going to happen, though. Call me a homer, if you have to, but I'm going to call a halftime six-point lead for the Hawks, a 20-4 Heat run late in the third, and an Atlanta comeback that falls short in the final two minutes. Miami wins by four.
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