(Photo Credit: Kevin Cox)
The Miami HEAT kick off a six-game road trip tonight in Atlanta where they take on the Hawks. The HEAT have won three straight, including an impressive 103-73 blowout of the Brooklyn Nets Wednesday night. The Hawks are 3-1 and are coming off impressive wins over Oklahoma City and Indiana.1.The Hawks are another team that changed their core over the summer. What's different about this matchup now?
Couper Moorhead: Sometimes, you just need a change. Joe Johnson gets a lot of flak, but he is still among the better perimeter players in the league, and there wasn't really anything wrong with what he did for Atlanta -- he did it quite well, really. But the team was the same year in and year out, and with Johnson using up so many possessions every year, the growth of everyone around him was stymied.
Now it's all different. Lou Williams will replace more of Johnson's offense than many people think, they added some of the best shooters in the league -- which if you follow the extremely flawed conventional logic about last year's HEAT team, is a Miami weakness -- and the offense is all about Jeff Teague making things work for Al Horford and Josh Smith.
Danny Martinez: In trading Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams the Hawks gave themselves some financial flexibility that allowed them to bring in Kyle Korver and Lou Williams. The Hawks hope that those pickups, along with Anthony Morrow and Devin Harris, who came over in the trades, can space the floor for Josh Smith and Al Horford. In Williams and Jeff Teague, the Hawks have quick, athletic guards at both perimeter positions.
The Hawks were stuck in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference. They reshuffled the deck with hopes of creating a more dynamic offense to match their strong defense from last season. However, the new acquisitions aren’t quite the defenders Johnson and Williams were. It will be interesting to see how the Hawks perform this season.2. Did everyone forget how good Al Horford is?
Couper: This doesn't happen with every player that misses most of a season -- nobody is going to forget how good Derrick Rose is -- but Horford's style doesn't jump off the screen in the first place, so it's understandable that people forgot a little bit about him. But he's so very, very good. Possibly one of the 20 best players in the league if this season goes right. Horford can do a little of everything at an above-average rate, is a versatile defensive player and has excellent ball skills as well. If that isn't a dream frontcourt player, I don't know what is.
Danny: It sure seems like it. Horford appeared in only 11 regular season games last year before a torn pectoral sidelined him until the playoffs. Miss more than 80 percent of your team’s games and you’ll fade away from our collective memories. Horford’s playoff run was brief, but impressive. He’s carried it over to this season, where he’s played well in the Hawks’ first three games. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities that Horford will be in the All-Star discussion come late January.3. If there is one Hawk the HEAT need to key in on defensively, who is it?
Couper: I'm going with Lou Williams here. As much as I like the players Atlanta added during the offseason, this is a team short of guys who can create their own shot. When the Hawks dip into the bench, Williams is expected to keep maintain the scoring margin for a few minutes at a time. With as explosive as Miami's offense is, unless there is going to be a strangely down shooting night, and they are likely due for one sometime soon, teams aren't going to be able to keep pace with bench units. Keep Williams under wraps, and you're forcing a number of Hawks players to do things they typically don't do.
Danny: In all likelihood, Josh Smith will get the most shots for the Hawks. Every 18-to-20 footer he takes is a victory for the HEAT defense. He’ll be important to keep a watch on, but not the player to key on. That player is Jeff Teague.
Teague is quick and can get into the lane in a hurry. So far this season, the HEAT have encountered trouble when opposing point guards were able to break the HEAT defense down and draw help. To prevent this, the HEAT need to play sound pick-and-roll defense. Slow down Teague, and the Hawks will struggle to score.4. Much has been made of the HEAT facing bigger lineups on this road trip. Does the Hawks frontline worry you?
Couper: Chris Bosh and LeBron James aren't worried about it in the least, so I don't see any reason to be, either. The HEAT are going to give up offensive rebounds this year -- Zaza Pachulia could sneak in for quite a few tonight -- but the tradeoff on the other end is more than worth it. This will be a fun frontcourt matchup, but I don't see it as any more of a test than any other game. Whenever you think Miami is being tested, remember that even more stress is being put on the other team.
Danny: The frontline is worrying, but not because it’s big. It’s worrying because Smith and Horford are supremely talented players. I continue to think the size concerns are overblown. The Atlanta frontcourt players are unique in that they are big, can space the floor and can matchup athletically with Chris Bosh and LeBron James. It will be interesting to watch Smith defend James because he may be one of the few guys in the league who can match James’ athleticism.5. Most of Miami's stars have been shooting far above average on the perimeter, whether from three or midrange. Will the offense have to compensate in any way once those numbers fall a little bit?
Couper: Process over results during the regular season, always. If the HEAT are getting consistent looks in the paint and the jumpers they do take are open most of the time, Erik Spoelstra isn't going to see much reason to switch things up. Shooting numbers are going to hit peaks and valleys, but the highs will always be higher if the shots are open.
The only exception to this might be how Spoelstra chooses to regulate his rotations, but even then any changes would be based on shot quality, floor spacing, pace and defense.
Danny: The important thing for the HEAT offense is that they continue to shoot threes when they’re open and available. Over the last twelve seasons, percentage of field goal attempts that are threes correlates more with offensive rating than three-point percentage. That means shooting the threes is more important than making them (but making them is still important!). When the HEAT offense is clicking, they’re creating open looks on the perimeter because defenses are rotating all over the floor.
Yes, the shooting numbers will come down, but no, the offense won’t really need to compensate. The HEAT offense is operating at an all-time level. A drop in shooting will likely mean the HEAT only operate at a league-leading level. Through five games, 58.6 percent of HEAT shots are coming either at the rim or from beyond the arc. Keep that figure and the HEAT offense will be just fine.