MIAMI — The general assumption was that the Miami Heat were bored with the regular season, hence their barely above average record. The postseason would be the time where this veteran crew would ignite and return to their former selves.
This roster is filled with players who have punished the Celtics over the years, and very recently: Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro, Bam Adebayo, and Kyle Lowry, and they were beginning to chirp about their ability to upset Boston in a first-round series.
That series, however, will only be played on NBA 2K. The Atlanta Hawks proved they were the better and more invested team Tuesday at Kaseya Center, outplaying and outhustling an apathetic Heat team in a 116-105 win in the first play-in game, earning the right to face the Celtics in the first round.
Celtics faithful can now breathe a sigh of relief. The Celtics were preparing for any opponent but the possibility of another grueling series with the likes of Butler and Co. was daunting, The Hawks, however, proved they will be more than a tune up for the second round.
Atlanta dominated the rebounding — an issue at times for the Celtics—– and scored 55 percent of its points in the paint with aggressiveness at the rim and a dual big-man combination.
The Hawks’ headliner is Trae Young and he led Atlanta with 25 points along with 8 rebounds and 7 assists, but seven players scored in double figures while center Clint Capela pulled down 21 rebounds.
It was apparent why the Heat sank from the top seed last season to seventh this season. They had trouble scoring, and they didn’t seem invested consistently, while the 37-year-old Lowry carried the Heat in the second half but got no help.
From the tip the Heat lacked the required intensity for such a moment while the Hawks punched first and led by as many as 24. Atlanta has been the epitome of average all season, going a 33-game stretch from late January to early April without winning or losing more than two games in a row.
An April 5 win at Washington was the first time since Jan. 20 the Hawks had won three straight. Former Utah coach Quin Snyder took over for the fired Nate McMillan on Feb. 28 and is 11-11, including Tuesday.
Snyder was heartened by the performance against the Heat. Butler guaranteed a win, and since Miami had beaten Atlanta three out of four times in the regular season, the hosts were decided favorites.
“I think we’re trying to be the best version of ourselves at the end of the year,” Snyder said. “And the year’s not over, so hopefully we can take this and continue to build on it. It’s one game but it was our game. I want our team to understand what we did well and what gave us a chance to win the game as much as anything. There’s nothing wrong with feeling good, but I also think part of that is whatever that feeling is, it doesn’t mean a lot come this weekend.”
The Hawks lost twice to the Celtics in Atlanta this season (the second defeat coming under Snyder) and then lost at TD Garden on April 9 with nothing but backups playing. Young said he had not had a chance to think about facing the Celtics because he was so focused on Miami.
Guard Dejounte Murray said he relishes the challenge. Acquired from the San Antonio Spurs last summer, Murray hasn’t been to the playoffs in five years and was acquired to turn Atlanta into a contender. The first season has been bumpy, but the confidence is brimming.
“I love [the matchup],” Murray said. “Obviously Boston’s at the top because they went to the Finals last year. But last year is last year. Me personally, I want the best. That’s how I was raised, to want to play the best. Boston is one of the best and it’s going to be a great series and we’re going to go out there and try to win.”
The Hawks showed why they have struggled with consistency this season. They melted in the final minutes of the first half and watched a 24-point lead shrink to 15. The Heat cut the deficit just 5 in the second half but Atlanta responded with hustle on the board and production from their youth.
Miami has spent the past few years adding aging veterans hoping for revivals but that luck has run dry. Victor Oladipo went scoreless in nine minutes. Kevin Love looked rather slow in his four.
The Hawks are big and athletic, and the Celtics are going to be challenged by their aggression in the paint. Young can dazzle with his 3-point shooting and his ability to attack the rim and draw fouls but the Hawks showed Tuesday they are more than Trae and The Youngsters. They battered the Heat with their depth, and winning that way gives the Celtics something to think about.
Snyder, however, knows his team is facing a formidable challenge and again will be decided underdogs to even push the series beyond five games.
“They’re really connected offensively. I think it’s more than them just having a lot of weapons,” Snyder said. “They have a feel for one another and how they play together and you can see that in the way they play. Their reads are terrific. They’ve got a lot of guys who can make plays and they want to do that for one another. They’re just really good. They’ve hit a lot of marks this year and it’s going to be hard.
“But it’s the playoffs.”