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Heat-Hawks series preview: Six potential matchups to watch out for

Another Erik Spoelstra v. Nate McMillan chess match!

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Today’s the day!

We’re hours away from tip-off from Game 1 between the top-seeded Miami Heat and the No. 8-seeded Atlanta Hawks, who downed the Charlotte Hornets by 29 and the Cleveland Cavaliers by six in the play-in tournament to become the 8-seed within the last week.

Miami concluded the regular winning six of their last seven regular season games, with the one loss coming to intrastate foe, the Orlando Magic, in an all-but-meaningless finale where most of Miami’s starters sat. Atlanta ended the season on a positive note, too, winning in seven of their last nine regular season contests and 12 of their last 17.

Zooming in a little, there’s plenty of intriguing matchups between the Hawks and Heat, who downed Atlanta in three of their four regular season meetings. I outlined six I’m monitoring below. Let’s dive into it!


NBA: Miami Heat at Atlanta Hawks
Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) is defended by Atlanta Hawks forward De’Andre Hunter (12).
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Jimmy Butler vs. DeAndre Hunter:

Atlanta lacks quality wing defenders, but Hunter is their best one by far. Butler played in three of the four meetings against Atlanta, producing to a tune of 18.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game on 59.4 percent true-shooting. Hunter was lined up across Butler quite often; per’s matchup tracking data, which can be a little shaky, Hunter was Butler’s primary defender on 84.8 partial possessions, the fourth-most for any Butler defender this season. Hunter limited Butler to 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting (1-4 3PT) and five assists, forcing two turnovers and rejecting one shot. If anyone’s going to spearhead Atlanta’s perimeter attack defensively, it’ll be Hunter — though he won’t be able to do it alone, either.

Miami Heat v Atlanta Hawks
Bam Adebayo #13 of the Miami Heat drives against Onyeka Okongwu #17 of the Atlanta Hawks.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Bam Adebayo vs. Onyeka Okongwu:

Originally, this spot was held for Capela. But due to his injury, the primary center matched up on Adebayo will be second-year big Onyeka Okongwu. Adebayo scored just 10 points on 3-of-8 shooting on the 38.4 partial possessions Okongwu was the primary defender. So there’s some semblence of success for Okongwu, though it’s too small of a sample to determine anything noteworthy. I guess we’ll see over this next week, right??

PJ Tucker vs. …Trae Young?

I’m not a betting man (Disclaimer: That’s a lie, but for now, let’s just pretend I’m not), but if I were to bet on who Young would begin guarding, I’d wager a couple cold, hard, American dollars on P.J. Tucker, though it could also be Max Strus or even Kyle Lowry if Atlanta’s worried about it being that much of a mismatch. And then I’d subsequently throw the rest of my imaginary betting budget on whatever odds I could get for the Heat to win in five, but I digress. Atlanta will try to hide Young as much as possible and the Heat have noticeably utilized Tucker more as a screen-and-roll threat than the Bucks or Rockets ever did. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Young starts on Tucker — or gets cross-switched onto him — and I’m intrigued to see how the 6-foot-5, 245-pound forward abuses the bruising mismatch.


NBA: Miami Heat at Atlanta Hawks
Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) and Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11).
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Trae Young vs. The entire team:

Okay, I might’ve cheated on this one. Go ahead, call me out. I could specify by saying “Trae Young vs. ______________,” and it would be relevant, so I ultimately decided to just choose the entire Heat team because Young will be seeing a ton of bodies throughout this series. Lowry. Tucker. Butler. Adebayo. Gabe Vincent. Caleb Martin (if he gets minutes). So on and so forth. In four meetings against Miami, Young averaged 25.5 points and 7.3 assists per game, shooting 43.9 percent from the floor and 31.4 percent from distance (62.0 TS%). The Heat can throw a bevy of coverages towards Young to help mitigate his success; should I have labeled it Trae Young vs. Spoelstra? In reality, that’s what it could come down to in the end.

Atlanta Hawks v Miami Heat
Bogdan Bogdanovic drives to the basket against Duncan Robinson.
Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

Bogdan Bogdanovic vs. Max Strus/Duncan Robinson/Tyler Herro:

Aside from Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic has arguably been Atlanta’s second-best (offensive) player in the second half of the season, tallying 18.2 points on 42.8 percent shooting, including 35.9 percent from beyond the arc in 23 games — 22 off the bench — since the All-Star break. For perspective, he’s Atlanta’s closest version to Tyler Herro in terms of their role: A bench spark plug. Speaking of Herro, he might be lining up against Bogdanovic a lot in the series, as will Miami’s backcourt of Max Strus and Duncan Robinson. Each combined for about 64 possessions on Bogdanovic as the primary defender, where he totaled 27 combined points on 9-for-14 shooting. With Miami’s newfangled rotation, it wouldn’t surprise me if at least two of Strus, Robinson or Herro were on the floor at the same time for a considerable amount of the game. If they are, it’s fair to assume one is checking Bogdanovic — who will likely be tasked to operate the non-Young minutes.

Atlanta Hawks v Miami Heat
Bam Adebayo #13 of the Miami Heat blocks the shot by John Collins #20 of the Atlanta Hawks.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

John Collins vs. Bam Adebayo

Given how many double drags and high pick-and-rolls Atlanta runs where Adebayo is involved of the action, I genuinely don’t know how much this matchup will matter, but it’s an interesting one between the team’s top two front-court players. Sunday marks Collins’ first game back from foot and finger injures, which caused him to miss the last 16 games. He suited up in three contests versus Miami, posting 16, 16 and 15 points, respectively. He’s developed into a multi-dimensional scorer, and of course we all know how sensational Adebayo is as a defender. Tucker might finish possessions on Collins more than Adebayo, but I’m interested to see what actions Atlanta runs to get Collins involved in his first game back.

Which individual matchup are you watching? Comment below!