The Hawks are very close to having what they want: The No. 3 seed in the East and a weakened opponent in Round 1. All they have to do is beat the NBA’s best team here Wednesday and root for Miami to beat the NBA’s worst team the same night.
Wait. It gets better. The NBA’s best team — that’d be LeBron James’ bunch — hasn’t used its best player the past three games. LeBron has been resting. But he might play against the Hawks.
As Brian Windhorst writes in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Cavs haven’t yet decided who’ll work Wednesday night. From Windhorst:
There is some temptation for [coach Mike] Brown to reassemble his entire starting lineup to attempt to find some rhythm before the start of the playoffs. That would include James, who has been inactive for the last three games.
It would be a good test especially against the Hawks, a potential playoff opponent who will want to win the game to secure their own playoff seeding. Brown has only been able to use his complete starting lineup with [a just-cleared-to-play Shaquille] O’Neal and Antawn Jamison twice and just once did it last a full game.
But the concern over last-minute injury still seems to be weighing on Brown’s mind and for that reason he doesn’t seem committed to attempting to test out the new/old look. Even if it could mean a smoother start to the postseason when the Cavs would be playing lineups not used to each other.
“Part of me says yes,” Brown said. “Part of me says it is the last game so are we really going to be much better come playoff time if we played in the last game together.”
The Hawks need only to stay ahead of Boston to clinch the No. 3 seed. If Boston loses in Chicago tonight, that would settle it. Otherwise the Hawks would have to beat Cleveland or hope Milwaukee wins in Boston on Wednesday. The prize for landing the No. 3 seed is self-evident: You wouldn’t have to play LeBron’s crew in Round 2.
And the difference between having to face Miami or Milwaukee in Round 2 is now immense. Miami still has Dwyane Wade; Milwaukee no longer has Andrew Bogut. He suffered a broken arm April 3. He made the Bucks dangerous. But Milwaukee, which won its first four games post-Bogut, has since lost at home to both Boston and Atlanta, one of which it will face in Round 1.
The Heat has won 11 of 12 and is the team to avoid. The Hawks needed seven games, you’ll recall, to oust Miami from Round 1 a year ago, and the Heat beat the Hawks three times in four this season. But Miami pulled ahead of Milwaukee by winning in Philadelphia on Udonis Haslem’s basket with 1.3 seconds remaining Monday, the same night the Hawks handled the Bucks in Milwaukee.
Bottom line: This is all shaping up for the local NBA franchise. The Hawks should be able to beat Milwaukee in a maximum of five games, while another Miami series could turn into another seven-game slog. And how you fare in Round 2 can sometimes be traced to how long it takes to survive Round 1.
Case study: Last spring. Both Al Horford and Marvin Williams were hurt against Miami, and the Hawks limped into Cleveland — Game 1 was on Tuesday, two days after Atlanta eliminated Miami — in a weakened state. Then Joe Johnson got hurt in Game 2 and the Cavs’ sweep was all but ordained. With a bit more health and a tad more rest, the Hawks might have taken Cleveland to six games. They wouldn’t have won the series, but they’d have given a better account of themselves.
And now they’re positioned to avoid Cleveland in Round 2. I’ve gone back and forth over who would be the preferable Round 2 opponent, and a month ago I was thinking the Hawks would be better off facing the Cavs than Orlando. But I’ve changed my fickle mind, for two reasons: The Hawks finally broke through and beat the Magic on Josh Smith’s dunk at the buzzer, and watching that game drove home a fairly basic point — Dwight Howard is really good, but he’s not LeBron.
As stout as they are, I still can’t see the Hawks beating LeBron’s team four times in a best-of-seven. But I could see them beating Dwight’s.