After an emotional, important win, the Miami Heat once again find themselves in a situation they can’t completely control. The Atlanta Hawks clinched a playoff spot with a 98-85 win over the NBA champions, while getting Dwyane Wade back wasn’t enough for LeBron James to carry his team to victory, which means they are once again tied for the top spot in the East and in need of an Indiana Pacers loss in the remaining two games.
Dwyane Wade played for the first time after a nine game absence and was excellent offensively – he scored 24 points in 23 minutes, including going 7-of-7 from the field in the first half. LeBron James had 27 points, but that was about it for standouts. The Heat started both the first and second half badly, playing slow offense and even slower, lazier defense, which helped the Hawks, playing very fast and smart basketball with Jeff Teague and Lou Williams constantly pushing forward.
The Heat turned the ball over 20 times. It seems like all the focus and energy they spent in beating Miami for what should have been the game that finally decides who finished as the number one team in the Eastern conference was left in Miami, and the product they put on the court simply put them in a difficult situation. It also raises more doubts about their ability to play big games in a short time span without letting it get to them physically and mentally, which is pretty much what the postseason is about.
One thing the Heat did wrong was treat this like another game against the Pacers. Udonis Haslem isn’t right for every opponent, and putting him on the floor doesn’t create the same kind of problems it does for teams with big men who don’t like to leave the paint. Haslem had 6 points and 8 rebounds which are numbers you expect from him, but it seems like more than ever, Miami need to start adjusting some things according to opponents, and not constantly play the same way with a declining squad and hope it’ll be like the last couple of years.
Atlanta are a success and feel-good story, one of the best we’ve had this season. A team that lost Al Horford had more than one excuse to fold and not make the postseason, and although they’re going against the NBA-wide wisdom that mediocrity, especially the kind that gets you into the playoffs year after year, isn’t very helpful, there’s something to be said about a franchise that breeds a winning mentality. Maybe not championship-kind of winning, but players know they’re expected to make the playoffs, standing as a sharp contrast to the discussing tanking we’re witnessing this season.
The Miami Heat are probably still the favorites to win the East. Unlike the Pacers, there doesn’t seem to be a feeling of a complete functionary breakdown, but of a team that has slightly lost its way and has the ability to get back on track. Oh, and there’s LeBron James, suddenly playing like an offensive juggernaut for more than one game. It won’t be enough to finish the job if it’s just him, but if Dwyane Wade got plenty of charge these last nine games out on the sidelines, maybe this Hawks slip is just the beginning of another long playoff run.