Neither the Heat nor Suns have it easy
The Hawks and Pelicans believe
BY DAVID THORPE
Think about how eight-seeds used to make the playoffs—usually at the end of a disappointing month or two. Very often they were fourth-seeds with broken dreams.
The play-in tournament has obliterated that psychology. To make it to the eighth-seed now, you have to effectively win back-to-back Game 7s against quality opponents. The Pelicans and Hawks arrive with the mentality of warriors. I’ve always believed what happens in one round can matter in another. The best possible preparation for a tough opponent is winning a hard fought series against another.
It’s unlikely any 8-seed wins a series. But the Hawks and Pelicans will make it interesting.
Trae Young is superstar enough to knock off the Heat
If, and only if, Clint Capela or John Collins returns healthy
Is this a mismatch?
The Heat mounted a monstrous fight for this top seed—including a public fight in a timeout between Jimmy Butler and the coaching staff. They survived a late-season four-game losing streak, then reeled off six straight wins (before losing the final game of the season resting nearly every rotation player). The East hasn’t been this good in more than a decade, and this is the best of the bunch. That’s no small matter.
And in that final winning streak the Heat led the NBA in net rating (and were third in offensive rating), despite a very tough schedule that included the Raptors and these Hawks. The Heat look fully formed and ready, they have no excuses not to play their best basketball, with what most consider to be the single best coach in the game today.
Meanwhile, the Hawks underachieved all season, defending without purpose and making last year's Eastern Conference Finals run look like a mirage.
But the late-season Hawks have been almost as good as the Heat. They are 17-9 since Valentine's Day, with the league's fifth-best net rating and second-best offense.
In Trae Young they have a consistent superstar who is literally building a brand right in front of our eyes. The offense is loaded.
But their top two defenders, forward John Collins and center Clint Capela (who hyper-extended his knee after 13 minutes last night in Cleveland) may not play. Already weak on that end, those players’ absence basically ends this series before it begins.
Unless one or both of them is good to go, in which case it could get interesting.
On paper and with full rosters, these two teams are not as far apart as the typical one vs. eight battles are.
The Heat have the leagues fifth-best defense, and 16th-ranked offense
The Hawks have the second-best offense, and 19th-ranked defense
The Heat are ninth in points off turnovers, the Hawks allow the second-fewest points off turnover in the league
The Hawks score a ton while only 23rd in points in the paint.
The Heat’s defense works mostly by preventing points in the paint, where they are second-best in the league.
*All stats since February 14
The Hawks have a hole in the middle of their defense where injured players used to be. Is that something the Heat can exploit?
Not obviously. The Heat are 28th in points in the paint the last 25 games of the season. It wouldn’t appear they are geared to take advantage of the Hawks’ missing big men.
However, layups are layups, and the Heat have enough slashing talent in Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo to force Atlanta to bring more bodies inside to help prevent those shots.
And that’s where the Hawks could lose the series. Miami, in 2022, fields the best shooting team in the league, making 38.6 percent of their 3s. They are third in free-throw percentage at 81.8 percent. With Collins and Capela, the Hawks could probably stick to their base defenses and defend both the interior and the perimeter decently. Without them, it’s scramble-o-rama and the shooters are standing by to make any mistake costly.
This is the Heat’s giant opportunity. They’re going to get buckets. Lots and lots of buckets. So many buckets that Erik Spoelstra might have a special strategic opportunity on defense.
Will the Heat go crazy trying to trap Trae Young?
Young made some almost 30-foot bombs to end the Cavs’ season, can blow by any trap or defender for his deadly floaters, and is capable of both the ordinary and the sublime as a passer.
I love his pick-and-roll reads and passes leading to dunks more than anything else he does. It’s incredible. His awareness is off the charts. His expertise in ball screen actions, his knowledge about when a teammate will slip a screen—and the passes he throws that lead them to uncontested buckets—might be the best I’ve ever seen.
Between these kinds of passes and his shooting/scoring talent (Young scored more total points and had more assists than any NBA player this season), it would make sense for Spoelstra to devise something devious to slow Young down.
Only everyone has tried that, and nothing works. Young has too much skill and quickness to be effectively doubled all game long, and his teammates are good enough to punish the resulting four on three actions after he dribbles or passes out of the traps. In addition, and this is important: scrambling around on defense takes a massive aerobic toll on those defenders, potentially sapping some energy from their offense.
If your offense is elite, and you’re facing a middling defense, why not just save the energy and stay home? Kyle Lowry and company can take turns doing their best on Young. The Heat can send targeted traps and some “show and go” techniques to give Young the fleeting thought that a trap is coming before it evaporates. Nothing too crazy though, as Miami can win games by obliterating the Hawks defense.
DAVID THORPE’S PREDICTION
HEAT IN FIVE
Without their best defenders, the Hawks’ defense might have to resort to some tricks of their own. Only their head coach, Nate McMillan, is no trickster. He’s more likely to challenge his guys to step up and execute better. Until he gets some help back in either player, it won’t likely be enough. The series gets very interesting if the Hawks find a way to win in either game in Miami, then gets a starter or two back at home in Game 3. Were that to happen I’d see a thrilling seven-game series, with home court advantage pushing Miami onward. At full strength, these are evenly matched teams. The Hawks just have to hope they’re at full strength.
BY JEFF FOGLE
Back on March 23, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and star Jimmy Butler lost their tempers in dramatic fashion during a 118-104 home loss to the Warriors, before the Heat lost at home to the Knicks and Nets. Were their title hopes over?
Since then:, six straight win/covers, including impressive conquests of the playoff-bound Celtics, Bulls, Raptors (all on the road), and Hawks … followed by a meaningless season-finale loss to the Magic.
Based on a combination of team talent, rest, and home court advantage if needed, betting markets see the Heat winning this series slightly less than 80 percent of the time. Oddsmakers and early bettors were aware that Hawks’ center Clint Capela hyperextended his knee in Friday’s win in Cleveland. He’s scheduled to undergo an MRI Saturday in Miami.
Can the Pelicans be this year’s Grizzlies?
It’s hard to scare the Suns
BY DAVID THORPE
Impartiality is something you should come here for, generally. But not in this series! I have a rooting interest this time.
The Pelicans have a G-League team called the Birmingham Squadron, whose head coach is, perhaps, the best under-40 head coach in the world. It’s not just me who thinks that, I can assure you. But no one else who thinks that loves him like I do, because Ryan Pannone began as my assistant when he was 19, almost two decades ago. He’s been a son to me ever since. He’s coached on three continents and we’ve spoken weekly from all of them. He has also been a guest on our show BRING IT IN.
He called last week to let me know he was summoned to New Orleans to help prepare the Pelicans for their first play-in game against the Spurs. I have not texted or spoken with him since.
And that’s not all. The Pelicans have another assistant, former NBA player Corey Brewer, who was my student, and another son to me, since he tore his ACL his second season. His Beverly Hills wedding a few years ago was the most elegant and lovely event I’ve ever witnessed. My parents held his second son, as an infant, in their arms, while Corey played a game. I was the first person Corey called when his dad fell into a coma a decade ago, crying uncontrollably, and again, more under control, when he passed weeks later. I’ve not messaged with him since their season ended either. But I know what this series means to each of them, and I won’t be able to watch these games impartially.
Can Monty Williams be any better at this?
The Suns have had so many problems this year. Deandre Ayton’s contract, Chris Paul’s injury, Robert Sarver’s shameful behavior and investigation … and they just rolled. Through all of that and more. The most losses they had in any month was five. They never lost three in a row. Here’s a weird little stat: for more than half the season, the Suns were in the midst of a win streak of eight games or longer. They’ve essentially been playing with intense high energy–and winning games at an electric rate–since they entered the bubble what seems like a hundred years ago.
They’ve been the league's best team all year, and my favorite to win the NBA title since about December of 2021. They are the favorite in Las Vegas too.
Are the Pelicans better than their record?
The Pelicans had a far bumpier and more surprising ride. The day after we published my prediction that either Zion Williamson or Kevin Durant would win this year’s MVP, the Pelicans announced Zion had an injured foot. He has not played one second of the season, and won’t. Willie Green had never helmed a team before. Then a 3-16 start had many people wondering if Zion would ever return to such a bad team and a sinking franchise.
But Green is known to be a great connector to people, and in time, the players started to get an identity. Add in a mid-season trade for professional scorer (and all-around great guy) in CJ McCollum and the development of three rookies who all earn rotation minutes, and the Pelicans suddenly became, well, good.
How good? Since Valentine’s Day, the Pelicans have the seventh-highest net rating, and have beaten the Raptors, Suns, Jazz, Hawks, and Bulls. They have a losing record for the season, but at 14-12 in their final 26 games, with a stirring comeback win in LA Friday night over the Clippers, they are not a team that will just be happy to have made the playoffs.
Are the Pelicans ready?
McCollum is exactly what the Pelicans needed, and will need next year and beyond. Solid veteran Jonas Valanciunas and elite wing scorer Brandon Ingram form a better than average trio, offensively. Those three Pelicans rookies are something Zion should be thrilled to have next to him next season:
Lottery pick Trey Murphy is a sniper, hitting 41 percent of his 3s the final two months of the season.
Second round pick Herb Jones is the Matisse Thybulle of the West, with the potential to become the league’s best wing defender.
Undrafted rookie guard Jose Alvarado is a mini-version of Marcus Smart, a human tornado on defense who absolutely impacts games on that end with relentless energy and some shockingly clever or high effort steals.
It’s all enough to make the Suns work. But they do that automatically. You don’t catch that team sleeping.
Doing the math, and assuming the Suns will bring fierce effort, I don’t see this series being close. Too many of the Pelicans’ big roles are filled by very inexperienced players. I can’t see them causing much trouble to the Suns two-way machine.
Jones is going to be a series changer on defense one day, his athleticism, length, and feel for the game on that end are superb. But chasing Devin Booker is not in his wheelhouse yet. The Suns use excellent screening actions to get Booker where he wants to go, and I don’t see Jones or the Pels throwing them out of whack.
Alvarado will pester Chris Paul, or Booker, and he is truly a force. But the Suns will make him pay for being weak on offense. Both Alvarado and Herb Jones were below 30 percent from 3 the final two months of the season. The Suns can exploit that to gum up the Pelicans’ improved offense.
The Suns have their own defensive stopper in Mikal Bridges, one of the league’s best defenders. He’ll make life challenging for whoever he’s guarding, whether Ingram, McCollum, or anybody else. Paul, Ayton, and Jae Crowder are excellent defenders too.
Phoenix has played elite-level defense all season, even with all their injuries. The Pelicans can’t shatter their sound approach until they have a healthy Zion.
DAVID THORPE’S PREDICTION
SUNS IN FIVE
The Suns have been on a mission all year, the Pelicans have confidence that reminds of the eight-seeded Grizzlies last year. They won Game 1, but were sent home in five games by a much better and more experienced Jazz team. I see similar things happening in this series, although in this case the underdog’s one win likely comes at home.
BY JEFF FOGLE
A year ago, the Suns caught the NBA and betting markets by surprise with a 51-21 regular season that went 42-28-2 against the spread (ATS). That was followed by a 12-4 surge through the Western brackets that clocked in at 11-5 vs. market expectations. The Suns finally cooled off in a championship round loss to the Bucks (2-4 straight up and ATS).
Markets adjusted this season, with far bigger spreads, and the Suns still went 44-38 ATS in the regular season. Markets accepted that this group is championship material, and the Suns topped expectations anyway.
Can they win all their home games vs. the Pelicans by double digits? There are no bargains available in this round. The Pelicans impressed down the stretch, then won and covered play-in games 113-103 and 105-101 over the Spurs and Clippers respectively. But, the respected Suns approach Sunday night’s tipoff with about an 85 percent expectation to win the series opener … and 90 percent to advance to the second round.
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