The Eastern Conference’s top-seeded Miami Heat and eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks meet in the first round of the 2022 NBA playoffs. Atlanta beat the Charlotte Hornets and Cleveland Cavaliers in the play-in tournament.
More Yahoo Sports NBA first-round playoff previews:
How they got here
Miami Heat (53-29)
The Heat reached the 2020 NBA Finals, lost in the first round of last year's playoffs and reloaded this past offseason. Veteran free-agent signings Kyle Lowry, P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris added more layers of physicality to the culture Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo established. Be ready for a fight against Miami.
Butler and Adebayo played like All-Stars when they were not battling illness or injury. Tyler Herro's bounce-back season made him the favorite for the Sixth Man of the Year award. Duncan Robinson overcame an early shooting slump to shoot 40% on nearly eight 3-point attempts per game over the final four months of the season. And Lowry settled into a complementary table-setting role, scoring efficiently when asked to do so.
As always, the Heat identified and developed several gems from the waiver wire, turning journeymen Max Strus, Gabe Vincent and Caleb Martin into reliable rotational contributors. The result was 53 wins and the No. 1 seed in a deep Eastern Conference, despite Butler and Adebayo each missing a third of the season.
Atlanta Hawks (43-39)
The Hawks returned from a surprise 2021 Eastern Conference finals run with a surprising lack of inspiration. Atlanta star Trae Young even conceded, "It's the regular season. I’m not going to lie, it's a lot more boring than the playoffs." Their 17-25 record in mid-January, 12th place in the East, reflected that sentiment.
Young played brilliantly throughout, but a deep and talented roster around him could not strike a chemistry balance. The Hawks cleared space in the rotation, trading Cam Reddish and Solomon Hill to the New York Knicks for a draft pick. Atlanta proceeded to win seven straight games and finished the second half of the season on a 26-14 tear, owners of the league's third-ranked offense and fifth-best net rating in that span.
Young averaged a 28-4-10 on 46/38/90 shooting splits and led the league in total points and assists. Bogdan Bogdanovic was a legitimate Sixth Man of the Year contender and one of six more Hawks to average double-digit scoring, including center Clint Capela. They survived another early season injury to De'Andre Hunter and a late-season injury to John Collins to earn the ninth seed in the play-in tournament.
Atlanta found that postseason inspiration again, dominating Charlotte in the play-in opener and beating a quality Cleveland team on the road to secure the eighth seed. Collins missed both play-in games with his foot injury, and Capela hyperextended his knee against the Cavaliers, leaving both in doubt for the start of this first-round series against Miami. But the Hawks still have Young, their depth and a fighting chance.
Head to head
The Heat won their regular season series with the Hawks, 3-1.
Miami beat Atlanta by 24 points without Butler or Adebayo on Jan. 12, and then beat them by six two days later, still without their center. Capela missed both games. They played again another week later, and the Hawks exacted revenge against the Lowry-less Heat. It was not until their final meeting on April 8 that both teams were (near) full strength, and Miami needed a 10-2 run down the stretch to pull out a 113-109 victory.
Three of the four games were decided by two possessions or less, and the trio of Butler, Herro and Lowry dominated Young and the heliocentric Hawks late in those games, finishing a combined +18 in the clutch.
Butler, Adebayo and Lowry will close games. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra can play with the other two spots. Tucker closed games in the Finals for the Milwaukee Bucks last season. You can trust him. You want Herro out there, but he can be a target on defense. Robinson and Strus fall into a similar category. Martin and Vincent are better options defensively, but can you put your faith in them in pressure-packed moments?
Young, Bogdanovic, Huerter, Collins and Capela have been dominant this season, outscoring opponents by 101 points in 164 minutes together. Hunter's defense is the priority over Danilo Gallinari's offense if Collins remains unavailable, and Onyeka Okongwu is a capable replacement for Capela. That lineup has played minimally together, but the limited sample size was encouraging, and the quintet helped close out the Cavaliers.
Matchup to watch
The Heat are loaded with defenders, but it is a tall order for Lowry at age 36 to keep pace with Young. Miami has successfully assigned Butler to the undersized point guard, but Martin has gotten the call most often, which means the third-year wing will be in a bright spotlight in his first playoff appearance.
Martin's defense also leaves less room for Herro — Miami's most potent offensive weapon. The Heat were a below-average offensive team without Herro on the floor this season, and that is concerning against a unit as potent as the Hawks. Slowing Young is that important, though, and Spoelstra could be spending the entire series striking the right balance between his best defense and an offense that can score with Atlanta.
This is why the Heat gave Lowry $85 million, to keep the point guard battle competitive in the playoffs, and if he can steal enough quality minutes against Young, Miami will have more flexibility to field its best lineups.
Miami Heat (-375)
Atlanta Hawks (+300)
Heat in six.
– – – – – – –