HAWKSVILLE - So it’s come to this.
Game 7 (Sunday afternoon at Philips Arena) in a series where neither the Hawks nor Heat has shown anything in the way of true desire to snatch this thing up and finish it.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock Friday night in yet another blowout – Game 6 looked like Games 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 – it started to make sense.
These two teams don’t know how to win in the playoffs (duh, news flash huh?). They’re simply not capable. There aren’t enough seasoned NBA playoff veterans on either roster to put the finishing touches on a series of this nature.
Joel Anthony and Solomon Jones. Mario West and Mario Chalmers. No offense to these fine young warriors, but there aren’t more than a handful of truly battle tested performers between these two teams that you could point to and know that you’re going to get a playoff-worthy effort from them night after night.
Injuries certainly have played a part in this series moving on to a seventh and final game. From Marvin Williams (doesn’t look good for Game 7) to Jermaine O’Neal (no way he sits another one out) to Al Horford (he’s a go) to both Dwyane Wade (name that bump or bruise) and Joe Johnson (I have a sneaking suspicion that the right ankle he tweaked twice in Game 5 has been bothering him much more and much longer than he’s willing to admit), a key player for either side has been missing basically every step of the way.
In the end, it won’t matter who suits up for Game 7, because someone has to go home after it’s all over. And someone has to move on to face LeBron James and his band of merry men. Someone HAS to, because the NBA will not wait for the Hawks and Heat to figure out if they’d both like to play their best on the same night. They need a winner Sunday so the world can move on.
The lack of killer instinct on both sides has been nothing short of deplorable. I couldn’t believe the emotionless performance the Hawks delivered in Game 6. There’s no way you expect a team to saunter onto the floor in a close out game with that kind of attitude (or lack thereof). Aside from Mike Bibby, there wasn’t a single player in a Hawks uniform that seemed interested in leaving AmericanAirlines Arena for Cleveland.
Whichever teams wins this series can rest assured that the Cavaliers will have no problem asserting themselves, be it in Atlanta, Miami or Cleveland, in the same situation. They made quick work of the Pistons and will do the same to either one of these teams if they can’t rise to the level of the moment and the competition.
The Hawks remain steadfast in their belief that the home court advantage they earned this season is going to be their saving grace. Could be. But I’d be nervous about resting my entire season on the percentages (the home team wins Game 7 a whopping 80 percent of the time in a seven-game series).
SO INSTEAD OF PLAYING MY OWN HUNCHES, I reached out to a couple of friends in the scout world for their opinions about this series, and particularly Game 7. They didn’t have a ton of praise for consistency of either team.
I asked for the Game 7 key for both teams and here’s what I got:
For the Hawks - It’s all about their defensive coverages. They switch almost everything, rotating guys and they can get away with it because of all their length and quickness. They’ve done a great job in the games they’ve won of closing out shooters and not allowing Wade to the turn the corner and drive to the lane and finish in his sweet spots. They haven’t allowed him to kill them at the line and they’ve done a good job of forcing the Heat to play them in transition. And that’s a game the Hawks win against almost anybody in the league when they are on top of their game. The problem has been on the offensive end more than anything. When they don’t move the ball, they leave Joe on an island with two and sometimes three guys closing in on him. And he’s not passing out of the traps and double teams fast enough, if he passes out of it at all, to make the defense rotate. That means the Hawks get one shot and they’re done. Because they are clearing out the lane for Joe to drive and work on his guy but he’s not driving. He’s settling for jump shots instead of forcing the issue. When he does that, their entire offense grinds to a halt and they don’t have enough good shooters to scare you in the half court. What they’re missing is their two-man game with Joe and Bibby on the left wing. They’ve run that to perfection at times this season, forcing whoever is guarding Bibby to switch off and guard Joe and vice a versa. They’d honestly be better of playing through Bibby in Game 7 and letting Joe work his man on the block and use his size to attack the Heat from a different angle as opposed to off the dribble. Bibby’s been their best player in this series. And that’s a wrinkle that works in a one-game set like they’re in now, because it causes the Heat to adjust on the fly. And if they get it right, that’s fine. The Hawks can go back to their default setting that’s worked well for them in three of the games and ride that. But whatever they do, they better feed those kids in the frontcourt, because they always play better when they are involved in the offense. They block more shots and rebound the ball better when they know they’re going to get fed a little bit on the other end. That’s always the key with your bigs. But if they get in iso mode and each guy tries to do it on his own, and that includes Flip Murray and Zaza Pachulia off the bench, they’re in trouble. So they have to careful about spreading that thing around and keeping everyone involved. They’re not a one-man team like Miami. They don’t have to play that way.
And for the Heat - It’s all about Wade for them on offense. If he’s on and he’s creating as well as getting his shots and drawing fouls, he makes them an impossible cover. The Hawks don’t have anyone that can contain him one-on-one. Joe’s done the best job of anyone, but only when he’s using his hands and actively trying to deny Wade the dribble drive game that makes him so dangerous. If Wade is creating and drawing defenders into the lane on his drives to the basket, that leaves wide open shooters around the 3-point line. If they make those shots the way they did in Game 2 and 3 (the Heat sank a whopping 27 shots from beyond the arc in those games), it’ll be lights out for the Hawks. Because those shots are as demoralizing as anything. Being a split second late on a rotation can sink you when they’re hitting 3-pointers. There’s no secret what they’re going to do offensively. It all starts with Wade. It all flows from him. Where they’ve really been successful is on the defensive end. They’ve really neutralized Johnson with those traps and double teams. They’re bringing a third defender, too, when he heads to the lane and they’re cashing in because he’s not moving the ball. When he does get rid of it, he’s throwing it to guys like Josh Smith, who is shooting 15 percent (2-for-13) from 3-point distance, so it works out perfect for the Heat. And you can tell their guys have read the scouting report and understand how to bait the Hawks into those bad shots. They’re backing off Smith on the wing and daring him to shoot from out there and he’s taking the bait every time. If he dives on those double teams and gives Johnson the option of splitting the floor on the double team with a cutter to the basket, then the Heat has a little more trouble trying to cover the entire floor. But he hasn’t done that and that allows the Heat to really lock down on Johnson and make things tough on the Hawks. They’ve also been the more physical team, even in the games they’ve lost. They’ve been the team playing more physical around the basket in particular. Joel Anthony was the key in game 6. With O’Neal out he, Udonis Haslem and Jamaal Magloire owned the paint. They controlled the lane and kept the Hawks off balance the entire game. That’s the way they’ll have to play it in Game 7 to be successful. While I assume O’Neal is going to play, they at least have the horses to handle things on the defensive end if he doesn’t play. But if they can defend like they have on their best nights, they’ve got a chance to win the game because Wade is going to bring the offense with him.
THE GAME 7 X-FACTOR is likely to emerge early on. It could be several players, depending on how things go. I watched the Celtics’ Game 7 win over Chicago Saturday night and from Stephon Marbury to Eddie House to Brian Scalabrine, Boston got huge efforts from their bench in a must-win game. And we’re talking about guys whose roles have fluctuated throughout the season, depending on the Celtics’ injury situation.
I’m wondering who is going to be the guy in Game 7 here. Michael Beasley stepped up in Game 6 to help lift the Heat to a win. Flip Murray did it for the Hawks in Game 5. You figure one of those guys is going to have a huge Game 7.
Just like basically everything else about what’s going on with this series, it’s a toss up as to who the real X-factor is going to be. There’s no telling until game time. See you there.