Hawks still no match for Miami even as Heat star Jimmy Butler sits out

Atlanta Hawks head coach Nate McMillan gestures as he calls out a play during the first half of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Miami Heat, Tuesday, April 26, 2022, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

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Atlanta Hawks head coach Nate McMillan gestures as he calls out a play during the first half of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Miami Heat, Tuesday, April 26, 2022, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

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MIAMI – All teams need good luck to win in the playoffs. The Hawks caught their break when Miami’s best player, Jimmy Butler, sat out Game 5 on Tuesday. Miami’s misfortune was an opportunity for the Hawks to win at FTX Arena and stay alive in the Eastern Conference playoff series.

They couldn’t do it. The Hawks lost control of the game with panicked, amateurish play to end the first half. They rallied after halftime but never regained the lead. The Hawks had a chance to tie at the end but couldn’t even get a shot off.

The Heat didn’t need Butler to finish off the Hawks. They ended the best-of-seven series with a 97-94 victory. The Heat move on face Philadelphia or Toronto in the semifinals. The Hawks were one-and-done in the playoffs a year after going to the East finals.

The Hawks gave a better showing in Game 5 after lopsided losses here in Games 1 and 2. They did it despite several players dealing with injuries.

Bogdan Bogdanovic (knee) didn’t play. Clint Capela (knee) left the game for good after playing just 19 minutes. John Collins (hand, foot) was limited to 26 minutes. That’s Atlanta’s best bench scorer, Bogdanovic, and its top two big men.

The Hawks didn’t play well, but they kept coming at the Heat.

“(The Heat) are a tough matchup for us,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said. “I have a great deal of respect for my group for how they played this season and how they played this game. There was no give-in.”

Ultimately, the Hawks couldn’t overcome another poor showing by All-Star point guard Trae Young. He led the NBA in total points and assists during the regular season. The Heat solved the difficult problem of limiting Young’s impact as both scorer and playmaker.

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Young scored 11 points in Game 5 while missing 10 of 12 shots. For the series, Young averaged 15.4 points on 22 of 69 shooting (32%) and had as many turnovers (30) as assists.

“They are a good defensive team,” Young said. “Their team is more of a system than who they have on our team. Whoever they have out there, they can play.”

The Heat seemed on their way to another blowout home victory. They led 54-42 at halftime and the margin never dipped below 10 points in the fourth quarter. Miami led 79-66 with 10 minutes to go. The Hawks came back behind an offensive eruption by De’Andre Hunter, who scored 18 points and made 6 of 8 shots in the period.

“I just wasn’t trying to lose, that’s all,” Hunter said.

Hunter’s jump shot cut Miami’s lead to 95-93 with 1:14 to play. The Heat answered with a score after one of many defensive breakdowns by the Hawks. Victor Oladipo drove past Kevin Huerter and passed to Bam Adebayo under the basket for a dunk. Young made one of two free throws to make the margin three points with 59.2 seconds left.

Then Hunter was called for his sixth foul while fighting off a screen. McMillan said he considered challenging the foul call on what he called “marginal contact.” McMillan said he decided against it because he didn’t want to use his final timeout. Hunter was on the bench for Atlanta’s final possession.

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After Miami’s Max Straus missed a 3-pointer, Hawks forward Danilo Gallinari missed a jumper. The ball went out of bounds off a Heat player with 5.2 seconds left. Hawks guard Delon Wright passed the ball in from under the basket to Gallinari in the corner. Gallinari held the ball as two Heat defenders trapped him, then Bam Adebayo stole his pass intended for Wright under the basket.

Game over.

“They just blew that play up,” McMillan said. “Good defense by them.”

Bad offense by the Hawks contributed to their demise. Full-court pressure defense shouldn’t work against NBA teams. They have too many skilled ballhandlers and passers. The rewards for using a press are low and the risk, a transition shot, is too high. The strategy typically is deployed out of desperation.

Maybe that’s why the Hawks looked as if they’d never seen a press before. They melted down when Miami brought the heat in the second quarter. A 40-37 Hawks lead became a 54-42 deficit over the final four-plus minutes of the half.

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A bad pass from under the basket by Hunter led to a layup for Max Strus. The Hawks managed to get the ball in after that basket, but Huerter got trapped by two defenders and lost the ball out of bounds. Strus sank a 3-pointer three seconds later. Strus made another 3-pointer after Collins missed a shot and scored on a fast-break layup when Oladipo stole Hunter’s pass.

That sequence sent a jolt of energy into Miami’s sleepy fans. The Heat were swarming. The Hawks were flustered. Miami scored 15 points with no answer. The Hawks committed five turnovers in four minutes. They couldn’t get their offense going until Hunter started making shots. He led all scorers with 35 points.

Over the first four games, Butler led the Heat in points (30.5), rebounds (7.8) assists (5.3) and steals (2.8). Miami’s starting point guard, Kyle Lowry, missed his second straight game with a hamstring injury. The Heat found enough points from other sources. Oladipo filled in for Butler and scored 23 points and Adebayo had a series-high 20.

McMillan wanted the Hawks to push the pace in Game 5. The idea was to create scoring chances in transition, before Miami’s defense could get set. That plan requires stopping the Heat from scoring. The Hawks hadn’t really done that in the first four games. They didn’t really do it in Game 5, either, but the Heat shot 7 of 31 on 3-pointers while getting plenty of open looks.

Getting to the basket was too easy for the Heat early. They scored 18 of their 21 first-quarter points in the paint. Four baskets were layups. The other three points were on free throws. The Heat couldn’t pull ahead because they were missing 3-pointers. The Hawks were missing open shots, too, but they forged a 22-21 lead by getting extra chances with offensive rebounds.

The Hawks led 38-34 five minutes before halftime. Then came the fumbled passes, loose dribbling and uncertain decisions against Miami’s full-court pressure. The Hawks had 19 turnovers, with 12 of them on live balls. Their lack of strong ballhandlers was a problem all series against Miami’s aggressive defense. That’s one issue the Hawks should look to fix in the offseason.

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The Hawks regressed from fifth place in the East last season to 10th. A run of COVID-19 infections hurt them, but so did their nonchalant approach to the start the season. A few bad losses late in the year prevented the Hawks from avoiding the play-in tournament.

“We have to play a better regular season to put ourselves in better position,” Gallinari said. “We let a lot of games go. We had too many ups and downs.”

The season ended on a downer in Miami.

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