A little over a month ago, the Atlanta Hawks defied most expert predictions (that is if we’re considering people who think Kevin Huerter still plays for the Hawks to be “experts”) by beating the Miami Heat 116-105 in the seven versus eight seed play-in game.
The contest clinched Atlanta’s spot as the seventh seed in the 2023 NBA Playoffs while Miami was forced to play another play-in game, which they won by the skin of their teeth against the Chicago Bulls.
Neither the Hawks nor the Heat looked particularly impressive in the April 11 Atlanta win, and most talking heads expected both teams to be early dismissals in the playoffs at the hands of the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, respectively.
However, fast forward a month and change, and now the Miami Heat are on the doorstep of the franchise’s first NBA Finals since LeBron James returned to Cleveland, holding a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 lead on the same Celtics who sent the Hawks packing in six games back in April.
This comes after Miami shocked the NBA world by not just becoming the first eight seed to beat a one seed in over a decade, but by doing it with such little difficulty, dispatching Giannis Antentokounpo and company in a mere five games.
How on earth did Atlanta make it look so easy in South Beach?
The first answer is that the Hawks absolutely obliterated Miami on the glass in that game. Atlanta won the rebounding battle by an astounding plus-24 margin, with Clint Capela finishing the evening with 21 boards, including eight on the offensive end.
Every time Miami tried to make a run, Atlanta would deflate their momentum by generating two, sometimes even three field goal-attempt possessions that usually ended up in points. Relinquished offensive rebounds are the enemy of the comeback, and Miami found that out the hard way.
The next reason is that Miami’s role players, save for a Fountain of Youth-style performance from Kyle Lowry, largely disappeared in that game. Gabe Vincent, the undrafted guard who torched Boston last night to the tune of 29 points, registered just six against Atlanta. Caleb Martin, who has thoroughly outplayed recent All-NBA selection Jaylen Brown in these conference finals, did not get on the board.
Whether that has to do with Atlanta’s defense being that good, Boston’s being that atrocious, or something else entirely, it certainly makes a difference when Miami’s bench mob is playing like the undrafted players they are instead of the prime Golden State Warriors.
Another reason is that Play-In Jimmy Butler is apparently not the same as Playoff Jimmy Butler. Butler, who has arguably been the best player in this entire postseason, turned in a relatively lackluster performance that night against Atlanta, tallying 21 points on a lousy 6-19 shooting clip. Fast forward to the playoffs, and Butler has now outplayed Antentokounpo and Jayson Tatum, two of the top four NBA MVP candidates, in those two series, and it hasn’t been particularly close.
To say this Heat playoff run is historic would be a major understatement. No one could have predicted just how thoroughly dominant Miami has been after a 44-38 regular season. They are one win away from becoming the first team in NBA history with a negative regular season point differential to advance to the Finals.
But in retrospect, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. This same Heat team with essentially an identical roster was also a game away from the Finals last year, even if they weren’t quite as dominant as they have been this time around. They easily dispatched Atlanta and made relatively quick work of Joel Embiid and James Harden before finally bowing out to these Celtics in Game 7. We knew this team had at least some level of talent.
So perhaps the real question is just how in the world Miami, with all of the pedigree and great coaching that they have, ended up as the eight-seed this year. Could the answer be solely in the fact that Jimmy Butler elevates his game tenfold by the time the playoffs roll around? Or that Bam Adebayo, after a disappointing regular season, had the epiphany that he is talented enough to be the world’s third-best center when he applies himself?
Who knows. It’s still undeniably bizarre, though, that the Hawks were able to handle this team with such ease only a few weeks ago and now can only watch as Miami curb stomps their way to the game’s biggest stage.