The formal schedule says the Miami Heat are playing the Atlanta Hawks in their first-round NBA playoff series. But the reality is that the overwhelming challenge for Erik Spoelstra’s team will be the singular challenge provided by Hawks guard Trae Young.
If there were any doubts about the test ahead for the Heat, they were addressed in Friday night’s winner-take-all game between the Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers, when Young scored 38 points, including 32 in the second half, in Atlanta’s 107-101 victory in Cleveland to close out the play-in round in the Eastern Conference.
So make it Heat vs. Hawks in the best-of-seven opening round of the NBA playoffs, starting Sunday at 1 p.m. at FTX Arena.
The Hawks finished the regular season No. 9 in the East, then won a loser-go-home game Wednesday night against the visiting Charlotte Hornets, who closed the regular season No. 10 in the East. Then came Friday night’s victory over the Cavaliers, who finished the regular season No. 8.
The Hawks present more of a challenge than a typical No. 8 seed, when factoring in the dynamic scoring of Young, the shooting of Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari and Kevin Huerter and then the inside force of center Clint Capela, health allowing.
The Heat went 3-1 against Atlanta during the regular season.
Heat vs. Hawks matchups
Center: Capela appeared in only two of the four regular-season meetings, but averaged 10 rebounds and 11.5 points in those two games, having often outmuscled the Heat inside. Bam Adebayo led the Heat in scoring in the season series, but his 22.5-point average came in only two appearances. It ultimately will come down to Capela’s force versus Adebayo’s versatility, provided Capela can push past the hyperextended right knee that took him out of the second half of Friday night’s game in Cleveland. Edge: Heat.
Power forward: This come down to injuries, with the Heat’s P.J. Tucker recovering from a calf sprain and the Hawks’ John Collins trying to work back from finger and foot issues that have had him out since March 11. When both are healthy, Collins is the one called upon to produce far more than Tucker. Still, Collins did not go for more than 16 points in any of his three appearances against the Heat this season. If Collins can’t go, then Gallinari likely again would get the call here. Edge: Hawks (if Collins plays).
Small forward: Jimmy Butler was awful in the first round last year for the Heat and has to have vengeance on his mind. Atlanta’s De’Andre Hunter endured a rough night in the teams’ most-recent meeting, but has the ability to excel on both ends, just perhaps not to Butler levels. Butler averaged 18.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.0 rebounds in his three games against the Hawks this season. Edge: Heat.
Shooting guard: This will come down to make or miss, with Max Strus recently recast in a starting role for the Heat and Kevin Huerter filling the role for the Hawks. Both are capable of breakout 3-point moments. Strus shot .462 on 3-pointers against the Hawks this season, Huerter .333 against the Heat. Edge: Even.
Point guard: Kyle Lowry was added in the offseason to have the Heat playing from a position of strength at point guard. Yet in this matchup, if Lowry can just keep it even with Young, it will be a net gain for the Heat. Young averaged 25.5 points against the Heat this season, with a high game of 35. Edge: Hawks.
Bench: The Heat arguably keep their best player in reserve, with Tyler Herro playing as sixth man. Caleb Martin also figures to have a significant role series as a (try-to-be) Young stopper. For the Hawks, depth could come down to health, from Collins allowing Gallinari to play off the bench, to Bogdanovic moving past the ankle sprain that had him questionable against the Cavaliers. Herro averaged 20 points and 7.7 assists in his three games against Atlanta this season. Edge: Heat.
Intangibles: The Heat went hard for the No. 1 seed, which meant homecourt throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. That has to matter. The last time the Hawks won on the road against a top-six seed in the East was Dec. 23 in Philadelphia. But the Hawks have the experience of a returning roster that advanced to last season’s Eastern Conference finals. Still, one team will have flown in from Cleveland 39 hours before tipoff, while the other has remained in South Florida all week. Edge: Heat.
Coaching: The last time the Spoelstra worked the playoffs against Nate McMillan, the Heat swept the Pacers in the 2020 first round, with McMillan dismissed by Indiana shortly thereafter. Edge: Heat.
Prediction: Heat in six.
Game 1: Sunday, 1 p.m. FTX Arena, TNT.
Game 2: Tuesday, 7:30, FTX Arena.
Game 3: Friday, State Farm Arena, Time 7 p.m., ESPN.
Game 4: Sun., April 24, State Farm Arena, 7 p.m. TNT
Game 5*: Tue., April 26, FTX Arena, Time TBA
Game 6*: Thu., April 28, State Farm Arena, Time TBA
Game 7*: Sat., April 30, FTX Arena, Time TBA, TNT
* — If necessary
(All games available in South Florida on Bally Sports Sun.)