The Miami Heat have been the antagonist of the Atlanta Hawks for years. It came to a crescendo in the first round of last year’s playoffs, when the Heat beat the Hawks four games to one and forced Trae Young into the worst playoff series of his career.
What happened after was a year of change for the Hawks. They traded multiple picks for guard Dejounte Murray, replaced head coach Nate McMillan with Quin Snyder and have worked to find counters to Miami’s trapping scheme that bottle-necked Young and the Hawks offense.
In Tuesday’s play-in game, the two teams will meet in the postseason for the second straight year and for the fifth time this season. Unlike previous meetings, there are more stakes than ever. Winner moves on to the playoffs. Loser is forced to play a second game to advance. In one game, variance comes into play more than ever. One player can get hot and swing these upcoming 48 minutes in his team’s favor. But both teams will scout the other well, try to dictate the tempo and, in the Heat’s case, try to repeat the success they’ve had over their opponent.
Let’s take a look at the key matchups, X-factors and how the Heat can come away with a win.
Key Matchup: Trae Young vs Heat’s Defense
The Heat beat the Hawks in last season’s playoffs by trapping Young and bottle-necking the Hawks offense. Young struggled to get clean looks from 3-point range or make passes over Miami’s defense and averaged 15.4 points on 31.9% shooting (18.4% on 3s) 6.0 assists and 6.2 turnovers in the series.
As a response, the Hawks in the offseason added another ball-handler in Dejounte Murray and, under new head coach Quin Snyder, have made changes to the offense. But the key to his matchup will be how Young himself has learned to attack Miami’s aggressive scheme.
This season, Young is averaging 19.8 points on 35.6% shooting, 9.8 assists and 5.3 turnovers in four games against the Heat. Still below his season averages, but better than last year’s disaster. In four games against the Heat this season, Young has tried to counter the trap by whizzing through the offense fast enough that Miami’s defenders don’t have a chance to get in position.
He’ll do it off makes:
When Young is pushing the pace like this, Atlanta’s big men will sometimes set screens closer to the basket than last season. This allows Young to get downhill and, if the Heat are able to successfully bring a second defender, keeps Young close enough to still get off a better look than the ones he was chucking from 30 feet-plus last season.
The Hawks will want to play through high screens, though, and Young has gotten better in the halfcourt, too. When trapped last year, Young often held the ball or tried to fling up a Hail Mary pass to a teammate that often led to a turnover. This year, he’s developed better timing in attacking Miami’s extended defense and exposing the inherent flaw in the Heat’s scheme.
When bringing two to the ball, it creates a 4 on 3 situation and puts extra pressure on the back end of the defense. Behind the two on-ball defenders, the off-ball defenders have to be alert and active. If Young is able to make a pass over the trap, the Heat’s defense has to be quick to rotate and reposition.
Here’s Young using the Heat’s aggression against them. As Miami’s defenders lean towards Young, he delivers a perfectly timed pass to a cutting John Collins. Pure jujutsu.
“We’re just going to have to fly around, rotate, talk, and just play hard,” Butler said. “When we play hard and play with a lot of energy, good things happen. Sometimes you just get in the way on defense and the ball just ends up right there in your vicinity.”
At their best, the Heat’s defense succeeds by pressuring ball-handlers and passing lanes to create deflections and turnovers. Timing is important here, too.
But Young is too good to show him the same look over and over. The Heat will mix in other looks, including some full-court press to get him out of his rhythm. The most important thing for the Heat will be executing each scheme to control the tempo and make Young feel unsettled.
“Like anything in this league, the more often you see stuff the more comfortable you get, and he is that kind of player that requires multiple schemes,” Spoelstra said. “You can’t just live in one strategy and expect that to be good enough. He’s going to bring it, we’re well aware of that.”
X-factor: Dejounte Murray
Murray is much more methodical than Young. He will call for a screen to try to force a switch and, if that doesn’t work, do it again. He’s not as bothered navigating through bodies. He wants to get into the paint and use his wide shoulders to burrow his way into a 15-footer.
In four games against the Heat, Murray averaged 18.5 points on 43.9% shooting, 5 assists and 1.5 turnovers. In the game the Hawks won this season, he scored 28 points and had seven assists. He is the obvious release valve when things bog down for Young, and his hunting style plays into the pace the Heat want to establish.
More troubling is how his off-kilter pace gave a world-class defender like Adebayo problems:
In the 24 minutes Young and Murray share the court on average, there’s still a lot of turn-taking. The Hawks have yet to find a balance between their two styles and it can look clunky. But both are still productive and more than capable of being the game’s leading scorer. As the Hawks go back and forth between lead guards, the Heat will also have to toggle schemes and do so effectively.
How the Heat win: Jimmy Butler sets the tone, role players make shots and defense plays the gaps
Beyond the defense executing an aggressive scheme, players like Max Strus, Gabe Vincent and Caleb Martin have to make open 3s.
The Heat are 23-12 when making more than 35% of their 3-point attempts this season, and 21-26 when making less. Good news is that the 3-point shooting has been trending in the right direction, with the Heat making 37.7% of their 3-pointers over their last 15 games (eighth best mark in the league during that span). When asked about the recent improvement in Miami’s offense, Butler pointed to exactly this.
“Shot making, honestly,” Butler said. “That’s the game in the game. I don’t know what the statistics say, I don’t pay attention to it, but I bet if we make three more 3s per game then our offense would look a lot better since November.”
But Miami’s shooters are at their best when Butler and Bam Adebayo are creating more open looks by getting into the paint and drawing additional defenders. On Tuesday, Butler will test Atlanta’s defense – and his own teammates – early.
Because of the stakes in this game, Butler can’t wait on averages. If Strus, Vincent, Martin and others aren’t making shots early, he’ll have to take over. Against the Hawks, there are several soft spots for Butler to poke at. Young is the most obvious one. The Hawks have tried to protect Young by not switching right away, or kicking him out when he does get stuck. In this next clip, Butler tries to get Young switched onto him but John Collins sticks with him. Butler bullies him anyway.
Butler is that good. Few defenders provide much resistance when he’s intent on getting to the basket. Deandre Hunter is Atlanta’s best option. Long, strong and skilled defensively, Hunter has managed to give Butler some problems in the past. But, as we’ve seen, when Butler is engaged in a postseason setting, there isn’t much anyone can do.
The Heat are five-point favorites and should be. They are the better team, have the best player and are at home. Still, this isn’t a walk-over. Young and the Hawks are talented, dangerous and motivated. Anything can happen in one game. That’s what makes the play-in tournament so exciting. The Heat will control what they can, and hope they make enough shots to advance to the first round of the playoffs.