The Three Biggest Questions For The Heat-Hawks First Round Series

The Atlanta Hawks earned a playoff bid on Friday night with a 107-101 road win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Thanks to a Trae Young second half masterclass, Atlanta locked up the 8-seed in the Eastern Conference. As a result, they’ll head down to Miami for a Sunday Game 1 tilt against the 1-seed Heat, which beat them in the season series, 3-1. Here are three questions that could end up defining what happens in this series.

How does Atlanta’s frontcourt hold up?

The Heat aren’t exactly a team that will throw wave after wave of size at an opponent. Regardless, Atlanta is heading into this series without its starting frontcourt — John Collins has not played since mid-March due to finger and foot sprains, while Clint Capela suffered a knee injury on Friday night during the team’s play-in win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Hawks do have the luxury of a pair of extremely capable back-up bigs: Onyeka Okongwu has turned into a very solid, albeit foul-prone, backup during his second year out of USC, while Gorgui Dieng is a veteran option with a reliable jumper. Having said that, those two have to deal with one of the league’s most unique players in Bam Adebayo, a tall task even at full strength. The ripple effect of having to rely more on guys down the bench impacts their non-centers, too — take a guy like Danilo Gallinari, a veteran who will also be targeted over and over on defense by Atlanta.

Should Capela and/or Collins come back, they should provide a gigantic boost on both ends of the floor to a Hawks team already facing an uphill battle. If they don’t, the challenge becomes even more daunting.

Does Atlanta’s offense have enough answers against Miami’s defense?

Now, I am not a professional basketball player, but as someone who watches basketball, I feel qualified enough to say that having to score on Miami seems miserable. A defensive foursome of Kyle Lowry, Jimmy Butler, PJ Tucker, and Adebayo is as ferocious as there is in the league, while anyone who takes the floor for the Heat ranges from “guy who will compete on defense” to “guy who will compete on defense and is also pretty good at it.”

It stands to reason that Atlanta’s gameplan on offense is to get Trae Young in pick-and-roll situations where he can hunt Duncan Robinson, or Tyler Herro, or whomever the weakest defender is on the floor at a given time for Miami. Again, that guy will be willing to battle Young, and Erik Spoelstra very well might just want his guys to blitz Young and try to force the ball out of his hands, with the bet being that it’s better to live with anyone else beating them. Guys like Bogdan Bogdanovic, Gallinari, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter will have to hit the shots that come from these situations, whether it’s because Young finds them or the ball gets swung around the perimeter while the Heat scramble.

Will Miami’s offense keep up its recent form?

Miami should be able to tear a not particularly good Atlanta defense apart. The Hawks are 26th in the league in defensive rating and boast the worst mark among teams in the playoffs in that metric. They’re not good at forcing turnovers, and their rebounding should suffer considerably if Capela and Collins cannot play. All of this bodes well for Miami, which should be able to win this series against a clearly inferior Hawks team. That’s especially the case if their recent hot play on offense can punish Atlanta — in the five April games leading up to the playoffs, Miami averaged 121.8 points per game while shooting nearly 52 percent from the field and 46 percent from three. If they can keep that up, this could be a sweep.