“I said, Mirror, Mirror, Make the Call… Who’s The Fairest of Them All?!?”
Udonis Haslem’s red glare! Bottles busting in air! Haslem’s heated and glass-smashing halftime speech gave proof through the night that the Miami heat were still there. Awakened by that bleep-bangled banter, Miami fizzled the Rockets in the second half on Sunday, overturning a 21-point deficit to win by 20 and raise their record to 2-1. Tonight, they’ll host the Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, NBATV, SUN Sports), who seek to extend their winning streak beyond three-in-a-row for this season and six-straight in this head-to-head division series.
In the post-LeBron era, Miami has been a team that’s struggled to get all cylinders firing at the same time, whether it’s due to health or uneven play. Even with a full, healthy unit, it’s been an uphill climb at the outset of this season. Last week, coach Erik Spoelstra’s club came back from a slow first-quarter start to win their home opener versus Charlotte, and held tight in Cleveland in the first half before LeBron and the Cavs pulled away.
The heat then found themselves getting blown out at halftime at AmericanAirlines Arena, by a Houston team that featured a wayward James Harden and deliberately sat out Dwight Howard. Then they put together a second half that would make Stephen Curry blush, outscoring the Rockets 65-26. The Miami native Haslem’s blue halftime ire riled up the team many prognosticators have pegged as the team to beat in the Southeast Division, despite the presence of the 3-1 Hawks and whatever’s going on up in Washington.
That’s not a moon over Miami, that’s the repeater tax penalty. Even considering the rising projected salary cap levels and some expiring contracts for Miami next summer, getting out from under the draconian penalty (for teams exceeding the luxury tax in three of its most recent four seasons) is much harder once a team gets into it. Trade talks regarding multiple heat players, including today's hot-stove talk about Mario Chalmers, reflects that sobering reality around Margaritaville.
Chief exec Pat Riley has experienced few constraints spending cruise-ship magnate Micky Arison’s money to this point. But if we get into February, and Miami risks spending tens of millions in penalties just to finance a probable first-round exit, a shake-up could be in order on South Beach. The need to look like a contender worthy of repeater tax payments puts the onus on Spoelstra and the heat to bolt out of the gates while they’re healthy. The Hawks get four chances to make those decisions tougher on Miami, with all of this season's matchups occurring before March 1, the final meeting one day after the league's trading deadline.
Along their way to a glistening 60-22 record atop the East in 2014-15, Atlanta swept the season series with the heat, winning three of those four contests by double-digits. In hindsight, they’d have done well to have gifted one or two of those games to Miami, considering it might have been the Hawks, instead, developing lottery wingman Justise Winslow. The rookie contributed ten points (2-for-2 on threes) and a pair of steals to the proceedings on Sunday, and it may not be long before he breaks into the starting unit ahead of fellow Blue Devil alum Luol Deng.
The Hawks are faring just fine of late, however, with Kent Bazemore sliding into the starting small forward slot. Bazemore fumigated the Hornets on Sunday afternoon for the second time in as many games. His season-high 20-point outing featured the go-ahead three-pointer with less than 90 seconds to go and two clutch free throws with 14 seconds left for the winning score.
Kent’s energy on defense (team-high 3 steals and a ridiculous at-rim block), hot shooting (5-for-6 on corner 3s), and his ability to get to the free throw line (team-high 6-for-6 FTs), evident throughout the 94-92 road victory, makes him just the latest to make opponents pay when they key in on Atlanta’s All-Star starters. He’ll see ample floor time with Thabo Sefolosha resting on the first night of back-to-backs. In case of foul trouble, Justin Holiday, Lamar Patterson, and Tim Hardaway, Jr. will be active.
Miami plodded through last season with the lowest pace of play in the East, and continues that halfcourt style this season (95.85 possessions per-48, 29th in NBA). The heat are at their letter-best when star guard Dwyane Wade (20 points, 8 assists, 2 steals, 1 TO on Sunday) and human windmill Hassan Whiteside (25 points, 15 rebounds, 3steals and 2 blocks vs. Howard-less Houston, all team highs) are able to set their feet on defense and help plug any leaks by their teammates’ assignments. Miami’s defensive rating (98.6 opponent points per 100 possessions, 16th in NBA) has been pedestrian so far, but their offensive rating of 106.6 and effective field goal percentage of 52.8% has been the best in the East.
Point guards Jeff Teague (team-high 18.3 PPG) and Dennis Schröder should have little trouble beating Goran Dragic (0.7 SPG, 3.7 personal fouls per game) off the dribble. They can make things easier for Al Horford (4.5 3FGAs per game, 27.8 3FG%) to pile up points in the paint and around the elbows by drawing Whiteside and Chris Andersen to their drives.
Horford joins teammate Paul Millsap and Miami’s Chris Bosh as some of the league’s most gun-shy big men. Working his way back from last season’s year-ending blood-clot procedure, Bosh has parked himself beyond the arc, hitting seven of his 12 above-the-break three-point attempts through his first three games. Millsap, whose triple answer to Marvin Williams with 40 seconds to go put the Hawks in front for good on Sunday, has been more diverse with his offensive arsenal, shooting 72.7% in restricted-area shots while going 5-for-11 above-the-break. Similar to the guards, Millsap should be able to get around Bosh and pick up dimes off penetration in the paint.
Wade will routinely switch off of Kyle Korver (28.6 3FG%, 0-for-4 3FG at Charlotte on Sunday), leaving the dullshooter to Deng, Winslow and the resuscitating Gerald Green (2.3 3FGs per game, 41.2 3FG%)for the halfcourt chases through screens. Korver’s deadeye shooting will return sooner or later, but in the meantime, he needs to replicate his performance last week in New York by helping secure the defensive rebounds. Miami’s not exactly crashing the offensive glass themselves (16.2 O-Reb%, 2nd-lowest in NBA) but they’ll have their share of chances against Atlanta (69.8 D-Reb%, 3rd-lowest in NBA).
Let’s Go Hawks!