The Atlanta Hawks and Miami Heat linked up on Sunday afternoon in Miami in a Game 1 that the underdogs would rather forget. The Heat rode hot shooting and relentlessness to capture a relatively easy 115-91 victory over the Hawks.
Atlanta immediately found Miami’s swarming team defense difficult to break down, and that labored to create open chances all game long. Miami faced less resistance on the opposite end, and began burying the Hawks with ball movement and spacing. The game quickly became uncompetitive and remained that way until the final buzzer mercifully sounded, with the Heat just a few first quarter minutes from recording a wire-to-wire triumph.
Well, mostly everything.
After a shaky offensive start from both teams, the Heat went on a 9-0 run to make the score 16-7 and never looked back. Miami’s extra gear on both ends was clearly evident from the beginning. For example, in this clip a simple back screen for the in-bounder Jimmy Butler forces a switch that makes Trae Young have to quickly recognize the cut. It becomes two easy points after a failed pass breakup attempt.
Miami kept one or even two stationary shooters in the corners almost all game long, and both Max Strus and P.J. Tucker were welcome recipients for the spacing benefits that provided. Here, off a weak side pick-and-roll, a diving Dewayne Dedmon is able to kick out to Strus once Bogdanovic has peel off his man to help at the rim.
The Heat also liked to keep two shooters — one above the break and one in the corner — on the same side of the floor to put the dig man in a bind. Here, Lowry is able to wiggle into the paint just enough that Young stays home and Danilo Gallinari fades from the near corner for Tucker to bury one of his four threes.
And then the deadly Duncan Robinson got into the act. He may be among the best in the league coming off staggered perimeter screens to get a opening for his shot.
Here, the Hawks are struggling to get matched up in semi-transition. Watch as Kevin Huerter is trying to call out someone’s assignment verbally and by pointing. Onyeka Okongwu bites on Robinson’s threat of the three ball and forces the attention of the rest of the Hawks defense. They can’t recover quick enough and two passes find Kyle Lowry with an open gym type of shot.
The Heat shared the ball at an incredible rate, unsettling the Hawks defense with swift ball movement and finishing with 35 assist on 43 made baskets — a percentage of 81.4%.
“They came out aggressive,” Trae Young said about the Heat’s fiery offense this afternoon. “They came out with a lot of energy and they fed off the energy of the crowd and they just made some shots so you’ve got to give them credit too.”
“I thought Miami played at a higher level,” remarked head coach Nate McMillan. “We talked about in our locker room that in the playoffs, there’s another level you have to get to. They already play with a high intensity, aggressiveness every possession. They showed us tonight that there’s another level that we have to get to in order to compete in these playoffs.”
Danilo Gallinari concurred with the intensity theme, saying, “They played with way more intensity than we did and we were not ready. They started from the beginning of the game and we never matched it.”
“We just had to get out to shooters,” put De’Andre Hunter succinctly. “That’s all. We let them get a lot of open shots. We were kind of over helping at certain times. Just getting out to them — I feel like that would limit a lot of shots that they had.”
On Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson, he continued, “They’re both great shooters. Having them on the floor with guys like [Butler] and [Adebayo], you’ve got to be aware of the pick-and-roll and things like that. It creates a lot of problems.”
Robinson in particular had laser precision coming off screens and firing with ease. He checked out with a game-high 27 points on just 10 attempts from the field, including drawing multiple fouls near the perimeter.
The strength and switch-ability of the Heat gave Atlanta fits as well, with center Bam Adebayo causing havoc even which switched onto Young. Here, Adebayo calmly trails and then swipes Young after the screen to start a fast break.
The stagnancy on offense was evident, too. Take this play, where the ball never enters the paint due to the attentive high defending from Miami’s help defenders on pick-and-rolls.
Later in the third quarter, the Heat continued to hound Young even when he stands still. Here, the Hawks are trying to set up a pick-and-roll for Delon Wright. Dedmon does a great job of staying in good help position to allow P.J. Tucker to stay home on Gallinari. When Tucker slides his attention toward Young as the shot clock gets low, Kyle Lowry is able to gamble for a poke away steal to lead to easy bucket.
“That’s what they do,” stated McMillan about the opponents. “They’re a very good defensive team. All five guys out there are good individual defenders and they are connected as a group. They established their defense really early.”
“You know it’s going to be a dogfight,” John Collins agreed. “[Miami] is going to be gritty, going to play hard and they’re going to play together.”
Specifically about the play of Adebayo, McMillan detailed, “They switch one through five, their 5-man Bam [Adebayo]. They feel confident that he can guard a guard.”
“The first half, we came down, we either shot the ball or one pass and a shot, continued McMillan. “You have to be more patient, get the ball moving against their defense, and playing your third and your fourth option. I didn’t feel that we did that early in the game.”
“We’ve seen that all season long, teams switching,” responded Young in regards to Miami’s defensive scheme. “And in our last game here [in Miami], that’s the defense that they play. So it’s not something that we didn’t expect.”
“They do a lot of switching,” he continued. “And not just switching, they do a lot of trapping. You’ve got to be ready to read off of what they do because they do a lot of different things in different times of the game.”
Asked about the burden Young feels going against a switch-heavy team, he responded, “Whenever teams are trapping, it’s just necessarily on me. I’ve got to make sure my teammates are in the right place. Bringing [Collins] back tonight – it’s another guy I’ve got to get into a rhythm and a flow. But they did a lot of trapping and things like that. So it’s more about getting guys to the right place and making the right reads. It’s a collective unit whenever a guy gets trapped.”
At times, Atlanta generated decent deep looks but couldn’t find the bottom of the net with any sort of frequency. The Hawks didn’t help themselves out with 18 turnovers, helping to derail any hopes of finding a rhythm on offense.
Young and Bogdanovic had nightmare games to forget, finishing a combined 1-20 (5%) from the field with 12 of their 14 combined points coming from the free throw line. Against a smaller frontcourt for Miami, Gallinari was, however, able to use big body in the mid-post to create space for turnaround jumpers. He would lead a punch less Hawks offense with 17 points on just 12 shots. But needless to say, Atlanta will need their main offensive stars to bounce back going forward to pry themselves back into the series.
The silver lining
This is Game 1 on the road for Atlanta — obviously the least pivotal game of a best-of-seven series. Just 40 hours earlier, the Hawks were celebrating a thrilling and emotionally draining comeback victory in Cleveland to advance themselves to these playoffs.
The quick turnaround and cross-country travel certainly had an effect. Similarly, with the Heat having locked up the top seed in the Eastern Conference over a week ago, and having been idle for a week, there was a clear built-in advantage for the Heat to jump all over the unsuspecting visitors from the tip off.
Collins also made his return from two injuries that have kept him out since March 11 and showed some fight despite physical limitations. Despite the TNT broadcasters expecting 10-15 minutes for Collins this afternoon, he would log 21 minutes in his return.
“I felt better than expected,” responded Collins about how it felt to get back on the floor. “I feel like the adrenaline took over for a little bit. Obviously just trying to handle it the right way. Make sure I’m going out there in the best possible state. But I feel like I got my wind. Definitely want a better result though.”
“It’s been tough,” he continued about his recovery journey. “Obviously as a finger injury, me being a right handed person and it being my right hand, it creates a bit more issues than I thought I would necessarily have. And then plantar fasciitis, just being on my heels, just the very specific places of them obviously gave me a bit of trouble.”
“I thought [Collins] was good for us tonight, said McMillan. “He hasn’t played in over a month. It was a game time decision so I was a little hesitant putting him out there but I thought he was okay. He felt okay. We put him in at the backup five position. It was good to see him out there again.”
“He got some shots to fall, especially there late,” said Young about Collins. “So it’s good to get him into a rhythm.”
With Clint Capela likely to miss the entire series, Collins will have to step up in the Hawks frontcourt if the Hawks are to have a chance at turning around their fortunes in this series. But there was no lack of confidence from the Hawks in the postgame press conference, with everyone responding confidently that the tides will turn. And after the past two season, it would plainly be foolish to think this team would fold after a bad opening act in the 2021-22 Playoffs.
The Hawks have another chance to force a split as they’ll face the Heat again in Miami on Tuesday night in Game 2.