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Preview: Hawks look to salvage mediocre season in Play-In tournament vs. Heat

Tuesday’s tilt against the Heat will be the Hawks’ first attempt at the officially making the 2023 playoffs. Win and they’re in.

Atlanta Hawks v Miami Heat Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

With the sounding of the final buzzer at TD Garden on Sunday afternoon, the curtain officially fell on the 2022-23 Atlanta Hawks’ regular season — a season fraught with disappointment and mediocrity basically at every second turn in a topsy-turvy season that under-delivered on expectations as the Hawks finished with a 41-41 record.

Despite how disappointing the season was for the Atlanta Hawks and as much as it feels like the Hawks’ season should probably be is, in fact, not over yet.

The Hawks have a play-in bout to come with two opportunities to make the postseason, should they need it. The first of which comes Tuesday against the Miami Heat.

The Heat were one of the teams the Hawks had a chance to leap in the standings after the All-Star break had things broken differently on the court — including two defeats to the Heat on the road in Miami in March. The Heat ultimately finished in 7th with the Hawks trailing by three games.

Not to mention of course the Heat’s victory in last year’s playoff series in a 1 vs. 8 matchup in five games, spurring the Hawks (no pun intended) to acquire Dejounte Murray from San Antonio to help Young so that the Hawks wouldn’t face a situation like they faced last year.

To add to the recent history between these two sides, the Heat have been one of the more difficult matchups — regular season or otherwise — for the Hawks over the last few years: 6-2 in the last two regular seasons, 10-3 if you count the playoff series.

Fast-forward one year later, the Hawks are basically right where they were (an average team) whereas the Heat have fallen from 1st to 7th in the East. Despite the drop-off in the standings the Heat have still proven to be a difficult matchup for the Hawks, who fell 1-3 in the season series.

Is there any hope for the Hawks to topple their fellow Southeast rivals in the play-in?

Let’s go over the season series between these two sides for context and see if there’s any solid basis for believing the Hawks can steal a playoff-spot on the road in a building where the Hawks have had minimal success recently.

The Heat won the season-series 3-1, the first two games under Nate McMillan while the last two games were among the first that Quin Snyder presided over, so in some ways it’s difficult to gauge how reflective the season-series will be for this one-game showdown.

That said, let’s go through the some of the season-series numbers and some of the consistencies throughout.

Hawks-Heat season series stats

Stats Atlanta Miami
Stats Atlanta Miami
PPG 114 116.5
FG% 50.1% 50.20%
3PA 30.5 32
3PM 10.3 11.5
3P% 33.6% 35.90%
FTA 23.5 24.8
FT% 84% 88.90%
Rebs 36 40.5
ORebs 8 9.5
2nd chance pts 10.3 11
Assists 25.3 29
TOV's 13.8 15.3
Pts off TOV's 17.3 16
Fastbreak pts 9 15.3
Steals 8 7.3
Blocks 2.3 4
PITP 49.8 54.5
Hawks-Heat regular season series

Looking at the numbers, there’s actually not a ton of disparity in terms of the team stats — reflected by only a -10 total point differential for the four games, despite the Hawks losing the series 3-1 — the major difference coming in fastbreak scoring.

The differential between the two sides in fastbreak scoring was much larger in the first two games than the last two games in March (+19 in the first two games), but let’s look at the manner of which the Heat excelled in this department.

Starting with the Heat themselves, they can create issues in transition when Bam Adebayo leads the charge. His ability to handle the ball presents a difficult challenge for defenders:

Not to mention his ability to pass:

The Heat often caught the Hawks out like this with long passes behind the transitioning defense and the Heat have a few players who can make passes like these, Bam being prime among them, Kevin Love too:

Another area of disparity between the two sides are the assist numbers, and the Heat are also good at moving the ball in situations like this in transition.

Here, the long outlet from Adebayo and then the quick pass from Jimmy Butler to set up an easy dunk:

Not from an outlet pass this time, but you can see the quality in Miami’s movement in transition here to work themselves into an easy basket at the rim:

The Hawks will also need to be wary of Jimmy Butler in these situations too. He, and others, at times wove their way past the Hawks’ defense too easily:

The Heat ranked 28th in fastbreak scoring in the NBA this season with 11.5 fastbreak points per game but know they can take advantage of a defensively inconsistent and sloppy Atlanta defense.

The Hawks at times fuel these Miami opportunities too.

The Hawks didn’t commit a lot of turnovers but the Heat were sure to punish the Hawks for whatever errors they did make.

Here, a flashy pass attempt from Trae Young goes array and the Heat are quick to push forward and the extra pass leads to the dunk at the other end:

On the dribble, Dejounte Murray loses the ball and Caleb Martin is too quick for the Hawks to prevent the fastbreak dunk:

Next, Young has the ball poked away and the Heat have the easy task of finishing at the other end with the Hawks’ defense left with no chance to prevent the basket after it was poked away from Young out front:

The Hawks will need to be wary of these situations because the Heat are not just capable of finessing their way to a layup or dunk with their passing in transition but their athleticism in some spots, showcased by Victor Oladipo here after the Atlanta turnover:

The Hawks will have to be careful with their shot selection too, as the Heat punished Atlanta off of misses and used these to fuel more fastbreak situations.

For example, Young pulls up from three and misses, and the Heat are quickly onto the situation and find the streaking Martin transition for easy points while the Hawks languish behind:

The Heat’s three-point shooting fell away this season but they shoot above their season average against the Hawks, and opportunities like this are easy enough for them to walk into in transition, this three-pointer coming off an Atlanta miss:

A bad shot from De’Andre Hunter here again gets things started for the Heat. Oladipo pushes in transition and scores at the rim, plus the foul:

Between Oladipo and Butler, and Martin also a looming threat, the Heat have more than enough options to put pressure on the rim in transition.

With Bam Adebayo also controlling the rebounding battle, this also fuels the Heat’s transition offense. Off of a miss, Adebayo fights for the rebound and once he gets it in his hands there’s a number of things he can do. He can push it himself, he can outlet...he makes the right play, and his rebound here is key before he gets the ball off to Kyle Lowry who finds Martin, who gets to the rim for the relatively easy transition basket:

In this case, Adebayo takes the rebound himself and heads up the floor, finding Gabe Vincent in the corner for the three-pointer:

The Hawks, simply put, will have to be more alert in transition than they were in the regular season series. This was a continued avenue of success for the Heat — their second/third passes in not just the open court but half court cut open the Hawks — and I imagine there’ll be emphasis on it again given their success versus Atlanta when compared to their regular season numbers in this category. If the Hawks were able to swing this category in the regular season, the season-series is tied at 2-2 at minimum. Over one game, it could be enough to swing the difference in their favor.

The Hawks do enjoy a defensive gamble but the Heat will punish the Hawks for such transgressions:

In terms of players, the obvious thorns in the side of the Hawks are Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.

Butler averaged 25 points per game on 63% shooting from the field, 92.6% from the line on over nine attempts, eight rebounds, six assists and 1.3 steals per game in three games in the series.

It’s going to be very difficult to stop Butler, he basically scores at will in this matchup. His ability to get into the defense and initiate/finish through contact is among the best in the league.

On this possession, Butler bodies John Collins in the paint and waits and fakes patiently before finally going up with it to finish at the rim:

Here, Butler manages to evade the Atlanta defense and work himself into an open dunk:

Not normally a particularly good defender, but Bogdan Bogdanovic does well to stay with Butler on this drive and force an adjustment but Butler still makes the shot at the rim on the drive:

Butler just hits a lot of tough shots and some of these you just can’t really defend, it’s part of what Jimmy Butler does at times:

And when you do load up on Butler, he’s got the ability to make the pass to the willing Miami cutters:

Similarly, Adebayo had an easy go of it against the Hawks, averaging 24.5 points per game on 61.7% shooting from the field, 92% from the line on 6.5 attempts, 9.5 rebounds, four assists, 1.8 steals and 1.8 blocks in the four games.

Adebayo was so good in the paint, in the mid-range he is very tough to stop:

Adebayo’s catch-and-shoot ability in the paint is a tough cover, as is guarding him on the move when he has the ability to get into that jumpshot/floater, but he can also get to the rim too:

In pick-and-roll, Adebayo is a threat that the Hawks struggled to contain.

The way he’s able to extend and finish with emphasis on this possession is quite remarkable and when you have a player who can do this, defenses sometimes tend to just get out of there:

Even off the ball, away from the ball-handler, Adebayo is a threat, this particular play was one the Heat had during this particular game:

Like Butler, Adebayo is also able to get into a crowd and finish through contact and get to the line:

In general, point paints are Miami’s strength in this matchup and the Hawks I think would be better off taking their chances in packing the paint and trying to make Miami beat them from behind the arc — the Heat ranked below the Hawks at 27th, shooting 34.4% from three. You’d take your chances with Max Strus, Gabe Vincent etc. than Butler and Adebayo shooting 60+ percent from the field and dominate the matchup as they have.

The form of the some of the Heat’s supporting cast will matter here. Caleb Martin shot 72.8% from three on 2.8 attempts, while Tyler Herro did not enjoy a strong season-series shooting 36% from the field and 21% from three.

Looking at the Atlanta Hawks’ side of things, their player numbers have a lot more scope for improvement than the Heat’s.

First and foremost has to be Trae Young.

Young has been the focus of the Heat’s many defensive looks, which have often been successful in limiting Young. This was obviously notable in the playoffs last year but the addition of Dejounte Murray hasn’t completely alleviated those struggles. Young averaged 19.5 points per game on 35.6% shooting from the field, 20.8% from three on six attempts, 86.5% from the line on 9.3 attempts, 9.8 assists, 2.8 steals but 5.3 turnovers per game.

The Heat have done well to make Young’s life as uncomfortable as possible, throwing all sorts of traps, zones etc. to place him in difficult situations, usually surrounded by bodies, making shots tough or forcing turnovers.

The Heat liked to use three defenders that between them make life difficult, such as on this possession:

Kyle Lowry stepping over to prevent Young turning the corner on the wing as well as the presence of Martin forces Young to pull-up for a contested three which is missed:

Rejecting the screen this time, Young drives and finds three bodies waiting for him and eventually one of them gets in front and raises his hands to contest the Young shot:

Again, Young sees a flurry of body activity in front of him and his pass is deflected out of bounds:

Along the sideline, with the clock winding down, Young sees an extra body and is trapped and ends up committing the turnover with no where to go:

The Heat are also quite savvy to Young’s passing tendencies and lobs, breaking up lobs and stepping into passing lanes anticipating Young’s intentions:

The Hawks will know that the Heat will again do what they do to disrupt Young. Young could certainly make some better decisions when he gets flustered/crowded and it’ll be interesting to see in a standalone game if this is the one game Young is able to excel against the Heat, or if it’ll end up like the majority of the others where he has struggled to be himself.

The play of Young’s teammates will also be of key importance, especially if Young is struggling in this matchup.

Looking across the stats for the Hawks outside of Young, the numbers/percentages are fine. They’re not stellar, they’re not bad, they’re just fine.

Dejounte Murray averaging 18.5 points on 43.9% shooting is fine but if the Hawks are to steal one from Miami here he’ll need to have a strong game, and his importance should Young struggle should not be understated. The Hawks acquired Murray to help in a situation exactly like this, and with their season not quite on the line on this game (but close enough) this will be an interesting ‘full circle’ kind of moment for the Atlanta Hawks from where they were one year ago.

De’Andre Hunter averaging 16 points per game on 51% shooting from the field is evened out by a 31% three-point percentage, Bogdan Bogdanovic shot 35% from the field but 46% from three... It’s nothing spectacular really. It’s just middle of the road. Each ‘good’ is outweighed by a ‘bad’ somewhere — which is very reflective of the Hawks’s season as a whole.

John Collins’ and Clint Capela’s numbers are solid but in limited time — 14.3 points for Collins on 61% shooting but 18% from three in 26 minutes. Capela averaged 13.3 points per game on 87% shooting in 26 minutes per game in three games. They have a tough task with guarding Adebayo and having to attempt to make up for the perimeter defense, which is impossible at times because when the Hawks’ defense breaks down out front the Heat can make the extra pass and Collins’/Capela’s/Onyeka Okongwu’s efforts are sometimes for nought.

Is there any hope for the Hawks here in Miami to emerge as the 7-seed? Over one game? Absolutely.

Despite the recent history and the 1-3 series defeat in the regular season, I do think there’s enough reason to be optimistic that the Hawks could actually steal a game here from Miami. Ultimately, it’s one game, and the two teams are closer upon inspection than that 1-3 margin would suggest. Quin Snyder has talked about how much the Hawks have improved since he has taken over...and the last two Miami games were early in his tenure. This will be a good test for the Hawks to measure and come back to for reference over the summer, win or lose.

Ultimately, I don’t think this season’s end will matter a ton to Snyder long term, nor will winning this game. They’ll obviously want to win if they can but I don’t think it’s the end of the world if they don’t — there’s a longer term plan in place you’d imagine and the results of this season don’t matter as much anymore. Things will look drastically different next season under Snyder, of that I have a lot of confidence in, which makes the end of this season more so a formality but a good yardstick for the Hawks to measure against.

But to win this game, in short, the Hawks will need to be better defending/limiting fastbreak situations, they’ll have to find a way to slow down Butler and/or Adebayo, Young will need to find a way to break through the Miami defense and if he can’t Murray needs to step up from what he did in the regular season.

If the Hawks can manage to check even one of those boxes — while keeping the other categories as close as they did in the regular season, such as free throw attempts etc. — I think they’ll give themselves a chance here.

Time will tell for the Atlanta Hawks.

DraftKings Odds

The Heat are 5-point favorites over the Hawks on Tuesday evening. The over/under total is set at 226.

Check out DraftKings Sportsbook, the official sportsbook partner of SB Nation