With the magic number down to 1, the Atlanta Hawks have a very simple formula as they head into Saturday night's game against LeBron James and the Miami Heat. With a win, the Hawks will clinch the 8th spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and with a loss, they will leave things up in the air for at least 24 hours, as they await the result of the New York Knicks and the Chicago Bulls in Madison Square Garden.
Obviously, there are dozens of opponents that the Hawks would rather see than the Miami Heat in this type of circumstance, but it could be a significantly weakened edition of the defending champions. Miami toppled the Indiana Pacers on Friday night to grab a leg up in the race for the #1 seed, and with Dwyane Wade already on the shelf, the Heat could potentially use some "extra caution" with their top-level studs. With that said, it would be a borderline miracle of guys like LeBron James took a seat, but their motivation level could be lacking, regardless of what is uttered in public.
The Hawks certainly have their work cut out for them, though, as the Heat present various match-up issues for Atlanta. Mike Budenholzer's club did manage to knock off the Heat in a 7-point decision back on January 20th (the last game between the two teams), but prior to that, Miami had served as a nightmare opponent, and the Hawks must play well in order to have a chance to win.
From a match-up perspective, it will be quite interesting to see if Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll is available to play. Chris Vivlamore of the AJC reported that Carroll underwent an X-ray on his hand following the win over Brooklyn on Friday, and if there are any lingering effects, it is conceivable that Bud could elect to sit him here. That would, frankly, be a disaster against Miami, simply because of the fact that LeBron James is on the other side of the floor. The Hawks have been a disaster without DeMarre on the floor this season, and there is an argument for Carroll as the most indispensable player on the roster.
Aside from that, Atlanta will need top-flight efforts from Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague (for the second straight night) in order to grab a win, and it is a virtual certainty that the offense will need a much better 3-point output than it came away with in Brooklyn. While it seems like a foregone conclusion that the Hawks will be in the playoffs this time next week, they can eliminate any lingering questions with a forceful win here, and that would be huge in preparation for what could be a rematch in the first round.
Game Date/Time: Saturday, April 12, 7:30 p.m.
Location: Philips Arena, Atlanta, Georgia
Radio: 92.9 "The Game" FM