How Hawks and Heat match up, plus my series prediction

The Hawks are back in the playoffs after two impressive victories in the play-in tournament. They dominated the Hornets at home and rallied to win at Cleveland behind an outstanding performance by All-Star point guard Tae Young. Now the Hawks draw top-seeded Miami in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

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The Heat are heavy favorites to win the best-of-seven series. They have implied odds of about 80% to win per the betting markets, while FiveThirtyEight’s statistical model gives the Heat a 68% chance of winning. The latter forecast may be muddled by the uncertain injury status of Hawks starting center Clint Capela (knee).

Game 1 is Sunday afternoon at Miami. Here’s how I see the teams matching up:

Point guards

Hawks: Trae Young

Young is playing the best basketball of his career. The Hornets focused on making him give up the ball, but he was so good as a playmaker that they eventually backed off. When the Cavaliers were a step slow guarding him off screens, Young made long 3-pointers. It will be difficult for the Heat to prevent Young from making the Hawks’ offense hum. Miami will try to go after him on defense, but Young held up at that end during winning time against the Cavs.

Heat: Kyle Lowry

Lowry was a six-time All-Star (and NBA champion) with the Raptors. He isn’t at that level anymore, but he’s still a very good player. Lowry plays bigger than his size (6-foot) by using his strong frame to score at the basket and prevent larger opponents from bullying him. He’s having his most efficient scoring season with high shooting percentages at every level of the floor. Lowry’s one big weakness is he can be loose with the ball.


Hawks: Kevin Huerter and De’Andre Hunter

Huerter is a good player who had some great moments during last year’s playoff run. The Hawks need him to be more consistent. Huerter is a very good shooter who too often passes up open looks. He has some good go-to moves as a ballhandler, but can be tentative about using them. Huerter tends to commit silly reach-in fouls when he has good defensive positioning.

Hunter showed his potential as an off-the-dribble scorer and playmaker against the Hornets. But at Cleveland he fell back into his habit of being indecisive on drives that lead to forced shots or wayward passes. Hunter did good defensive work against two good scoring wings, Miles Bridges (Hornets) and Caris LeVert. Now he will try to do the same against a tougher assignment, Heat All-Star Jimmy Butler.

Heat: Max Strus and Jimmy Butler

Strus was a fringe NBA player not long ago. Now he’s a starter for a contender. Strus replaced Duncan Robinson in the lineup for the final six games and averaged 12.5 points while shooting 51% on 3-pointers (20-of-39). However, Strus doesn’t score much from other areas of the floor and isn’t a good playmaker or defender.

Butler has been voted third-team All-NBA and was the main catalyst for Miami’s run to the NBA Finals in 2020. He’s a relentless competitor who plays tough at both ends of the floor. Butler’s 3-point shooting has inexplicably dropped off over the past three seasons. Now Butler doesn’t take many, though he said he’d rather play “bully ball”). Butler had stretches of shaky performance in the clutch this season, but the playoffs are his time to shine.


Hawks: Danilo Gallinari and Clint Capela

Gallinari is valuable for the Hawks because of his ability to create shots on his own and make them at a high rate (38% shooting on 4.5 3-point attempts per game this season). Gallinari will look for chances to shoot over P.J. Tucker if he’s the primary defender against him. Gallinari’s lack of foot speed makes him a shaky defender in space, but he competes and holds his ground when opponents try to power through him.

Capela’s is questionable for Game 1 after he hyperextended his right knee against the Cavaliers. He was playing well in that game after a great performance against the Hornets. The Hawks need Capela for his rebounding, defense, pick-and-roll scoring and experience. If John Collins (finger, foot) remains out the Hawks won’t have their two best big men available early in the series.

Heat: P.J. Tucker and Bam Adebayo

Tucker said he’ll be ready for Game 1 after missing the final two games of the season with a calf injury. Tucker signed with the Heat after helping the Bucks win last year’s NBA championship. He’s a “3-and-D” guy who fits the Heat’s physical style, but his offensive production dwindled late in the season.

Adebayo is one of the league’s best defenders. He does it all at that end: protects the rim, holds strong in the post, cuts off pick-and-rolls, deftly handles switches. Adebayo attempted only six 3-pointers all season. About 70% of his shot attempts were within 10 feet of the basket, and he averaged 19.1 points on 56% shooting.

Key bench players

Hawks: Bogdan Bogdanovic, Onyeka Okongwu, Delon Wright, Gorgui Dieng

The Hawks have benefitted from Bogdanovic’s experience playing big games in Euroleague and international competition. He was good for them in last year’s playoffs and is peaking for the postseason again. Okongwu has made big strides as a defender and gets the difficult task of guarding Adebayo. Wright’s is a solid, all-around player. Dieng was signed as an insurance policy at center, and now the Hawks may need him to play a big role.

Heat: Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Dewayne Dedmon, Caleb Martin

Herro is the heavy favorite to win the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award. He made 40% of his 3-point attempts on high volume (6.7 per game). Robinson also is a good 3-point shooter but he’s a poor defender; the Hawks targeted him in their last game against Miami and likely will do so in this series. Dedmon hasn’t been as good as he was with the Hawks two seasons ago, but he’s a decent backup center.


Hawks: Nate McMillan

McMillan has shed the perception that his teams underachieve by helping to engineer Hawks turnarounds in the past two seasons. The roster isn’t built in his defense-first image, but credit McMillan for drilling the message and getting more buy-in. Some of McMillan’s decisions can be perplexing, especially in regard to playing rotations, but he’s willing to make changes when something isn’t working.

Heat: Erik Spoelstra

Spoelstra is one of the league’s best coaches. He won two NBA championships and four East titles with LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. His 2016 team didn’t have any stars but still pushed the Raptors to seven games in the East semifinals. Then Spoelstra guided the Heat back to the finals with Butler.


Hawks: Showtime for Young

Young isn’t only the best player in the series. He’s also the best showman. Young has played only 16 playoff games in his career but already has proved that he loves the spotlight and doesn’t wilt under pressure. Young was sensational during last year’s playoff run and his second-half eruption at Cleveland saved the Hawks’ season. Everyone expects him to give a good performance on the big stage, and Young almost always does it.

Heat: Erasing doubt

The Heat should be motivated to prove they are for real. They are the East’s top seed, but have longer than the Bucks and Nets to make it to the NBA Finals. Miami made an unexpected run to the finals during the 2020 “bubble” playoffs at Disney World. But last year the Bucks swept the Heat in the first round of the playoffs while winning the final three games by margins of 34, 26, and 18 points.


Heat in 6

The Hawks have a track record of winning in the playoffs as underdogs. They thrive on the road in the postseason. Young can take over games while ruining defensive game plans. Those are among the good reasons to believe they can win this series. I’d pick them to do it if Capela and Collins were healthy.

The Hawks are at a big disadvantage without both or one of their starting big men. Okongwu is a promising young player, and Dieng allows the Hawks to spread the floor. But the Hawks need Capela and Collins to provide grit, rebounding and athletic ability in the frontcourt. I’m guessing both will sit out at least the first two games and that tilts the series in Miami’s favor.