Despite getting his lunch snatched away and gobbled up by his mentor for the third straight time, this is hardly a time for Mike Budenholzer and his Atlanta Hawks to engage in panic-button pushing. They can look to tonight’s visitors, the Miami heat (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, SUN Sports), as one example for how to engage in some quick slump-busting.
With so many teams huddled together in the Eastern Conference from 1-to-10, all it takes is stringing together a couple wins to not only stay afloat, but thrive. Miami (13-9) had lost three straight games, all by double digits, and was getting blown out at home in the second half by Memphis just last night. But after a dash of fourth-quarter heroics from Dwyane Wade, the heat prevailed, and they now sit in 6th place in the East. That’s just a half-game ahead of 9th-seeded Atlanta (14-11) and a half-game behind division-leading Charlotte.
Miami seems to have all anyone would need, on paper, to be a bona fide championship contender, certainly many of the things most teams covet. A certified Hall of Fame scorer, a likely Hall of Fame sidekick, an aggressive young rim-protector, a big-money point guard, a trusty glue guy at small forward, a jumping jack off the bench, a rookie who’s already a top-flight on-ball defender… all of that led by a head coach and staff rocking multiple championship rings.
Yet all of that ought to add up to more than 13-9 by now. Wade and Chris Bosh are as healthy together as they’ve been in some time, but they’re the sole two performers among coach Erik Speolstra’s regular rotation that have tasted championship success in Miami. The duo leads a set of youngsters that struggle to live up to past glories, and a few old-timers who are better at setting an example off the court than on.
Aside from losses like the 98-92 setback handed to them by the Hawks back on November 3, the heat have generally held serve within the friendly confines of American Airlines Arena (11-4, most home games in the NBA). November featured a seven-game homestand, and that was followed shortly thereafter by a four-game homestand, with another four-game homestand beginning at the end of this week. Despite such a home-friendly start to the season, Miami has generally wilted in their NBA-low seven away games (2-5).
Miami has also bested the West, last night’s victory extending their record versus the opposing conference to 7-1. Yet they’re only 6-8 against their Eastern rivals, 1-3 in the Dirty South Division. The uneven play has led, much like Atlanta (4-0 in the Southeast Division), to changing positions among the conference’s not-so-elite. Last week, Miami sat in first place, then slid to second, third, and seventh, before moving up to sixth for the moment.
Miami knows they must play better away from home (last in the NBA with 88.1 road PPG, 30.1 road 3FG%, 7.6 road offensive RPG) and against their fellow East opponents (92.9 PPG vs. East, 29th in NBA; NBA-low 5.9 steals per game vs. East) to stay near the top. The heat visit Brooklyn before embarking on that next extended homestand, and could conceivably make a climb back up the standings by the time their Christmas Day game versus the Pelicans arrive. After crawling out of the hole last night, they hope to get positive momentum rolling by tipping into the ATL and tripping up a Hawks team that can’t seem to find its bearings for terribly long.
Finishing shots around the rim is hard enough when you’ve got Hassan Whiteside (zero blocks for the first time all season Sunday) to contend with, but it’s near impossible when you are your own worst enemy. During Saturday’s thrashing by San Antonio, the Hawks continued a laughable trend of blowing layups and short-rimming shots, often barely contested, in the paint. Missing nearly a dozen shots within 3 feet of the rim, there’s little wonder why they got down 22 points at halftime versus the crafty Spurs, or down by double digits several times in OKC last Thursday.
Atlanta ranks 10th in the league with 28.7 restricted-area shot attempts but are only 18th in field goal percentage (57.9%) at that close range. A team more likely to rely on dunks from Whiteside and Gerald Green than prayers off the glass, Miami comes into tonight’s contest ranked 1st in that restricted-area FG% category (66.9%). The Hawks’ ability to finish interior plays could again be a difference-maker in tonight’s contest.
Having shot just 28.8 percent from 3-point range in the past two games, it’s clear that the long-ball can no longer serve as a band-aid for Atlanta’s persistent errors in shot selection and execution. Similar to the defensive effort provided by the Spurs’ Danny Green on Saturday, rookie Justise Winslow will not grant Kyle Korver (1-for-6 3FGs @ MIA on Nov. 3) much of a break. But lax defensive effort from Wade on the back end of back-to-back nights could mean some openings will be available for returning starter Kent Bazemore (team-high 42.9 3FG%) and Thabo Sefolosha in the corners and beyond the arc.
As Bazemore put it succinctly, to the AJC, “A lot of guys left a lot of points on the floor” on Saturday. Following a listless 0-for-5 shooting display (plus five turnovers) against the Spurs, Jeff Teague has to be the All-eged-Star that shakes the Hawks out of their offensive doldrums.
Teague (26 points, 9 assists @ MIA on Nov. 3) has to at least outperform Miami’s Goran Dragic, who started out 1-for-10 on FGs against Memphis yesterday and struggles to achieve a symbiosis alongside an increasingly frustrated Wade. If Atlanta is turning to Dennis Schröder (7 assists and no turnovers, unless we’re counting the giveaways while shooting 2-for-10 on FGs), and not Teague, to be the difference-maker, things will once again get dicey quickly.
As a big man, widening the floor and opening up the lane is useful only when your guards and forwards know how to take advantage. Another All-eged-Star, Al Horford (last 5 games: 42.6 FG%, 12.0 PPG, 23.1 3FG%, 42.6 FG%), has to abandon his multiple-three-point-shooting experimentation, no matter how enticing it will be to try keeping up with Miami’s Bosh (1-for-6 3FGs vs. ATL on Nov. 3) tonight.
Horford is shooting 41.1 3FG% above the arc (discounting the corners, where he shoots poorly), but seems all too reticent to leave critical duties in the paint, at both ends, to Paul Millsap or whoever else shares the frontcourt with him. The Hawks are 6-1 when Horford collects just seven defensive rebounds in a game, but those occasions are too infrequent.
For all his flaws this season, Al is shooting a solid 71.3% in the restricted area. He can make Whiteside (23 points, 14 rebounds, 4 blocks, no fouls vs. ATL on Nov. 3) pay for his help defense by focusing on catching-and-finishing around the rim, rather than from mid-range out.
This game should be over by the time the clock strikes midnight, but the calendar turn will also usher in a greatly expanded field of available NBA trading prospects. Neither the Hawks nor the heat will be making rash decisions anytime soon, especially with such parity in the conference right now. But if either team fails to gain traction in the near future, the clamoring for a shakeup from their fanbases will be hard for the front-offices to ignore. At least in Miami, as demonstrated most recently with the November trade-off of Mario Chalmers, the head coach doesn’t have to worry about also being the executive pulling the trigger.
Let’s Go Hawks!