Horseshoes and handgrenades. That’s what they always say. The Spurs were less than 10 seconds from a Game 6 championship just months ago but there’s no ring on Tim Duncan’s fifth finger.
Although the stakes were not nearly as high for Monday’s Heat versus Hawks matchup, this battle of the Southeast Divisions top two teams proved to be a skin tight affair. Wins and losses in the standings are but a binary matter sadly; a win is a win by 1 point or by 30 and the same for a loss.
The defending champions held long time Heat member Dwyane Wade out of the lineup, with all indications suggesting the reason being knee soreness.
The Hawks came out a little sluggishly, as they were held scoreless through the first 3 minutes, forcing Coach Budenholzer to call a timeout. It was part of a run of scoreless possessions, including 6 turnovers in the first 4:30. They would quickly get back into it behind a pair of Teague paint floaters, and a pair of Korver threes from almost exactly the same spot on the near wing. Although Teague continues to struggle with his long range shot, there’s no mistaking his ability to get into the paint and wreak havoc on opposing defenses. Likewise, Korver has run his streak to 97 games with a made three pointer, helping affirm his reliability from behind the arc, not that there is anyone doubting his ability from there.
Paul Millsap, not to be outdone by Korver, showed his range by knocking down two threes as well. He’s now shooting 45.5% from there for the season, so although that mark might regress towards his career average of 34.1%, look for him to continue putting it up from downtown.
The Hawks seemed to forget to guard the top of the arc in transition and a couple of threes from LeBron James and Roger Mason Jr. served as painful reminders. The Hawks made amends behind the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop plays which exposed some lackadaisical defenders’ efforts to contain the rolling or popping man, whether it be Mike Scott or Al Horford. This has been a staple of the Hawks offense for a few seasons since Horford has been a featured offensive option and Budenholzer’s schemes have helped emphasize its potency.
Another interesting wrinkle is the use of the spotting up Horford and Millsap in the corner. Both can make the corner three point shot but even when it’s defended well, the opponents’ shot blockers have been successfully pulled away from the paint, opening up the lane for Atlanta’s quick guards.
Bridging the two halves was a 12-0 run that left the Heat on their heels. Teague continued to slice through the levels of the Miami defense in a manner that would even insult hot butter. The Atlanta spacing, even in transition, gave Miami fits.
I’m not sure even Paul Millsap could explain all the open looks he was seeing at the top of the arc. It was the exact same pick-and-pop sets Teague and Horford have run for year except with Millsap at the arc instead of the key but clearly Heat defenders did not read the scouting report. Paul flashed his golden stroke to the tune of a 7-10 night from long range.
The Hawks struggled to contain penetration from Michael Beasley early in the fourth quarter, but upon him taking a seat, the game quickly became a free throw fest. Neither team gained a significant lead until with under 3 minutes to play in regulation, the starting lineup with Lou Williams subbed in for DeMarre Carroll went to work and wonderful ball movement would bring the lead to seven with a minute and a half to go. From there, LeBron took control hitting a contested three and throwing down a hammer of a dunk over Paul Millsap. To Atlanta’s credit, they hit all the free throws Miami was giving them to slow the game down, but a crucial foul on a late Ray Allen three gave Allen free throws of his own, which he used to send the game into overtime.
In overtime, Teague used transition opportunities to his advantage, pushing forward against the confused Heat transition defense for a couple of easy buckets. But with LeBron running the crunch time offense, Miami got into the paint to draw fouls and take the lead with under 10 seconds. Atlanta then makes a major faux pas. With 9.2 second left, after inbounding the ball and getting the handoff, Lou Williams is left dribbling the ball for a few second. However, the Heat had a foul to give, and it wasn’t until 2.3 seconds were left on the overtime clock that Lou advances the ball towards the hoop to draw the foul. As a result, the Hawks were left with just that amount to time to inbound the ball down by one point. A pass off of a curl across three down screens towards the rim for Kyle Korver goes begging and Miami seals the one point win.
LeBron James would net a game high 38 points in the win, while both Millsap and Horford logged a 20 and 10 output for the losers. Jeff Teague finished with an impressive 26 points on 20 shots, 8 assists, and 6 rebounds, but it wouldn’t be enough to supplant the victorious Miami Heat.
Moral victories don’t help you in the standing, but being able to push the defending champions to the brink has to bring some confidence to future meetings with the Heat for Atlanta. As things stand currently, if both teams win their first round matchups in the playoffs, they would meet in the Eastern Conference Semifinals as the #2 and #3 seeds. But for Monday night, it’s a heartbreaking loss that will leave the coaching staff looking for answers.