Give this to the Atlanta Hawks: They showed up on Saturday night.
Needing only to win one of their final three games to clinch the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, and knowing they had the perfect safety net in the form of a final matchup with the 15-65 Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta still came to play on the second night of a back-to-back against the two-time defending champion Miami Heat.
The underdog Hawks ran the Heat out of the gym in the second half en route to a 98-85 win in front of a raucous Philips Arena crowd...well, as raucous at they get for an NBA game in Atlanta, anyway. They overcame a rare down night from Paul Millsap thanks to 25 points from point guard Jeff Teague.
Reserve shooting guard Lou Williams came through in the clutch, scoring 18 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter—including Atlanta's final 12 points.
Not only did the Hawks clinch a playoff berth, they also pulled even in their season series with Miami at two games apiece. And the Heat cannot use their standard excuse for losing, as their big three was reunited for the first time in 10 games on Saturday.
So does that mean the Hawks could actually push the Heat in the first round? Absolutely not. They are still an undeserving playoff participant in perhaps the worst conference in league history. They just happened to catch the Heat at the right time.
After the game, an exhausted LeBron James walked into the Miami locker room and engaged in a playful give-and-take with the Miami Herald's Joseph Goodman:
The Heat forward cannot be blamed for feeling a bit ragged of late. Look at the minutes he has played over the last five nights:
- April 12, at Atlanta: 37 minutes
- April 11, vs. Indiana: 35 minutes
- April 9, at Memphis: 41 minutes
- April 8, vs. Brooklyn: 37 minutes
The Heat did lose three of those four games, with the Atlanta loss being the most shocking. But perhaps it shouldn't have been such a surprise. LeBron and the Heat were just tired.
While they managed to play Atlanta straight-up in the first half, going into the break tied at 49 apiece, the Heat fell apart quickly in the third, scoring just 13 points. Miami shot a woeful 35.9 percent from the field in the second half, as the Hawks pulled away.
This begs the question as to why James and the other starters were playing so many minutes in their fourth game in five nights. With the notable exception of Dwyane Wade who needed to regain his stamina after sitting out the previous nine games, the other Heat veterans didn't really need to continue playing in a game in which they were tired and ineffective.
And this is not an isolated incident. Basketball handicapper Haralabos Voulgaris noted on a Friday afternoon Grantland podcast that James' workload has been far too heavy throughout this season.
These are the things that the really smart teams understand, how many minutes their players optimally should be playing...I think LeBron's experiencing that too, by the way. I think LeBron's played too many minutes this year, for no particular reason. He hasn't gotten any of the rest days that Wade has gotten, and I'm a little bit worried about that for the Heat.
LeBron James may be among the most imposing physical specimens in NBA history, but he is not a machine. He has played 68 postseason games since coming to Miami in 2010. When you throw in his time with the 2012 USA Olympic team, that is essentially an entire extra season of basketball, played at the highest level, with the maximum amount of pressure.
Yet the Heat are riding the 29-year-old James harder than they have at any point of his tenure in Miami. He is now at 2,099 total minutes in 2013-14, which is already more than last season, and just 12 minutes short of the most he has ever played as a member of the Heat (2,111, in 2010-11).
Rest vs. First-Round Opponent
Fans of the "rest LeBron" strategy received some good news after Saturday's game, as the team indicated they were likely to sit James for Monday's matchup at Washington against the Wizards, per Goodman.
The bad news, however, is the Heat ceded the No. 1 overall seed with Saturday's loss. Though they remain tied at the top of the standings, the Indiana Pacers hold the conference record tiebreaker, meaning they are essentially one game ahead in the race for home-court advantage.
Miami is in a similar boat. They might very well lose to a Wizards team still playing for postseason seeding—particularly if James sits—but will probably win their regular season finale against the Philadelphia 76ers.
The difference between drawing the No. 7 seed or the No. 8 seed in the first round could be significant. Despite what happened Saturday night, the Hawks have been absolutely dreadful since the All-Star Break, much worse than either potential No. 7 seed (Washington or the Charlotte Bobcats).
|Miami's 3 possible first-round opponents, since All-Star Break|
Both the Heat and Pacers have struggled of late, and the woeful Hawks could prove a welcome respite from the tense clashes that figure to take place elsewhere throughout the first round of the NBA playoffs.
Unfortunately, Miami has ridden LeBron James far too hard of late, and they need to give their superstar a break, no matter what first-round matchup could be on the line. It will be up to the rest of the Heat to beat Washington on Monday and keep the pressure on Indiana.
And if the Heat do match up with Atlanta in the first round, expect the series to be radically different than Saturday's game. Miami should win in no more than five games.
All statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.