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Miami draws first blood by playing vintage Heat playoff basketball

The top team in the East had a dream start to their postseason against an overmatched opponent.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Atlanta Hawks v Miami Heat Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

The Miami Heat might think it wasn’t a perfect way to start a playoff hunt that includes a realistic shot to win an NBA championship, but when accounting for history, style, and grittiness, Sunday’s 115-91 Game 1 blowout victory against the Atlanta Hawks was as classic and vintage of a Miami Heat playoff victory as it gets – a true homage to the heyday of “White Hot.”

The best team in the East drew first blood in their No. 1 vs No. 8 series against Atlanta, winning in dominant fashion at the FTX Arena. It’s often said that the NBA Playoffs can be a game of intimidation. If the first chapter of this series is any indication, then Miami looks like the bigger dog in the yard.

The Heat played better than I anticipated to start the contest, given how long they hadn’t played and the usual rust that follows that type of layover. Unsurprisingly, their offense wasn’t crisp to get things going, missing five of their first six shots, but their defensive principles were immediately established, and that was most evident with how difficult it was for Trae Young to figure out how to attack on offense – his specialty.

Young finished with 8 points on 1-12 shooting, including 0-7 from deep, to go with 6 rebounds, 4 assists, and 6 turnovers. It was undoubtedly his worst game of the season, if not his career. The Heat’s defense, which ranked fourth in the league per 100 possessions in the regular season, was on full display.

Young called for multiple screens only to feel the full effect of the Heat’s switching 1 through 5. Bam Adebayo, PJ Tucker, Kyle Lowry, and Jimmy Butler each got their turns defending the All-Star who entered the game averaging above 28 points and 9 assists a contest. Like a big brother shielding his little sister from players in the club, they impeded any dribble-drive penetration or razzle-dazzle maneuvers Young attempted to get open.

(Young averaged a league-high 14 possessions as the ballhandler in pick-and-roll situations in the regular season, according to NBA stats. He scored nearly 1 point per possession, ranking in the 80th percentile. Miami allowed 0.85 points per possession defending ballhandlers in pick and roll in the regular season, just 0.01 behind the third best team in the league, OKC.)

Even Max Strus, who opponents figure is the weak link in Miami’s starting unit defensively, did a solid job staying in front of his assignments. Young took advantage of him one-on-one in both teams’ final meeting pre-postseason, but that wasn’t the case this time around. The help D was also on point. Even in the rare occasions Atlanta’s lead ball-handler got a step in the paint, his high-arching floaters were consistently contested.

The Hawks star also played the entirety of the first period, setting up a question that could have been prominent as the game went on: would he be durable enough to carry the heavy burden of leading an underdog to a victory, or would the exhaustion eventually get to him?

It never got to that, because Young wound up playing only 28 minutes, a repercussion of the one-sidedness on the scoreboard.

Miami shook off the rust in the first 12 minutes before getting loose in the second quarter – less thinking, more doing. Once that manifested, 3-pointers rained on Atlanta like typhoons hit countries in the pacific ring of fire.

Herro’s early struggles weren’t surprising. He finished with six points on 3-of-11 shooting and committed five turnovers. Given how well he played in his rookie postseason followed by a forgettable second stint in ‘21 against the Bucks, there was an expected intention for him to come out with a bang, solidifying what’s been a breakout campaign.

Instead of playing the beautiful, free basketball which propelled him to the top of the 6th Man of the Year race, there was an ineffective mix of overdribbling and lackadaisical decision-making, which awarded Atlanta scoring chances and prevented the Heat from erecting a double-digit cushion in the second period.

But the Hawks could only prevent the inevitable for so long.

The defense of Dorell Wright on Herro was impressive, as he’s done similarly to other scoring guards in the NBA. The catch for Atlanta is what they give up on the other end, considering Miami is willing, if it comes to it, to let Wright shoot semi-open jumpers from deep to prevent the bigger offensive threats from getting going.

The Heat’s all-around defensive discipline was remarkable to watch. The Hawks had no air space to get to their spots. They had less than a second window of opportunity to take advantage of openings and slip-ups. Heat players knew which rotations to make both on ball and off it. As the old-school purists like to say, Miami made Atlanta “feel them.” Did Atlanta’s few missed open 3-balls help? Yeah. But in the first half, nothing came easy for the 8-seed.

Just ask Kyle Lowry, who jumped as if he had a trampoline to contest Young’s foot floaters which he used to carve Cleveland days prior.

Butler was quick to point out post-game that Miami might have been fortunate with the subpar shooting performances of Atlanta, particularly Young and Kevin Huerter. The smart money is to expect both guys to get going as the series progresses. Ditto for Bogdan Bogdanovic, who had six points and shot a pedestrian 0-8 FG.

The Heat, on the other hand, knocked down 18-of-38 from deep. They are now 16-2 this season when hitting at least that many 3-pointers. Butler led the way with 27 points, Tucker scored 17, and Robinson added 27 off the bench on an 8-9 shooting clip from deep.

Robinson may as well have been the Easter Bunny for how popular he was on Sunday. There’s a reason why his Heat teammates were quick to hype him after every big shot, especially those two deep balls he hit early in the fourth that were of high difficulty, and it’s mostly due to the struggles he’s faced this season. Robinson’s sacrifice has not gone unnoticed for a Miami team that, frankly, looks undefeatable when they get this type of production from a bench player with as much scoring and floor-spacing potential as he does.

He picked a pretty damn good time to have his best game of the season. As Butler said, Duncan stopped caring what everybody else had been saying about his game and demotion. Maybe we should have known this blistering performance was due when he showed up to the team photo shoot with a headband on.

The return of Tucker’s offensive reliability is a welcome addition. Perhaps getting time off to rest really helps, who would have thought? Probably his head coach. Tucker scored five quick points to give Miami its first taste of separation in the game, then hit two corner triples early in the third to propel the blowout.

If Tucker can provide those occasional opportunistic scoring moments, it gives the Heat starting unit another offensive layer they’ll need to not only beat Atlanta, but advance far into the postseason.

At one point, Lowry, Adebayo, and Herro had a combined 22 points on 8-22 shooting. It didn’t matter; Miami was ahead by 27. Herro was getting to his spots in the second half, but the shot wasn’t falling. There isn’t any long-term concern here to worry about. Adebayo and Lowry didn’t provide much scoring – mainly because they didn’t need to – and the effort they put forth on the defensive end was nothing short of astounding.

As Spo said about his starting center, “Who gives a shit about his scoring?”

Especially when he’s that dominant on defense.

It’s a crime that Adebayo wasn’t announced as a Defensive Player of the Year finalist on Sunday. Then again, it’s another bit of bulletin board material to propel a team that low-key uses the lack of national media respect as motivation. Besides, there is no planet where Adebayo is not one of the three best defenders in the NBA. Coaches, scouts, GMs, and hoop aficionados know this, even if the voters somehow may not.

In some ways, Miami’s best wasn’t on full display yet. Strus and Gabe Vincent were solid but they’ll have games where they’ll shoot even better from the field. Likewise, for the aforementioned trio. Playoff Jimmy and Playoff PJ have been activated. The Hawks will improve as well, but the juggernaut they’re facing now punches in a much higher weight class compared to Charlotte and Cleveland. The Heat are on a mission, and it seems like they’re ready to go through whoever is on their way to glory.

1 down. 15 to go.