Since a surprise, matchup-friendly run to the 2021 Eastern Conference finals, the Atlanta Hawks have been one of the NBA's more disappointing teams. Last playoffs ended with a men-against-boys first-round loss to the Miami Heat.
This postseason, Atlanta, a .500 team all season, will again start with Miami. However, this time it's in a single-game format, and if the No. 8 Hawks have any intention of getting past the No. 7 Heat in the Play-In Tournament to secure the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference playoff field, two things probably need to happen.
First, the Hawks need to play fast. Trae Young, who was smothered by Miami last postseason to the tune of 15 PPG on 31% shooting, talked about this with JJ Redick after last year's elimination, noting how difficult it was for the Hawks to create quality looks against Miami's half-court defense.
Part of playing fast is getting stops, which, in a one-game scenario against a poor 3-point shooting team, could happen even without playing great defense. But independent of Miami's 25th-ranked offense, the Hawks need to push the pace even after makes, which should give them a better chance to attack before Miami is set. And their second actions need to be fast in the half court, namely as it pertains to attacking closeouts.
The Hawks have a tendency to quickly devolve into individual creation if their first pick-and-roll action isn't fruitful. One drive and kick often doesn't cut it with the way Miami flies to shooters and defends on a string, meaning the Hawks need to be prepared to catch and go two or three times in a given possession, forcing Miami to help down and recover back out multiples times until a quality look presents itself.
It would be best if Young was committed to off-ball movement to loosen up a Miami defense that loves to sit at the elbows -- in almost something of a 1-2-2 zone looks -- to jam driving lanes while still recovering to shooters, but that's another story for another season. Right now, the Hawks are a team that needs to create individual downhill leverage. If they solely rely on Young to do that, as they did last year, particularly in a stagnant setting, Miami will have the upper hand.
Indeed, the Heat are going to load up on Young. When they did this in last year's playoffs, Atlanta turned to De'Andre Hunter as a secondary creator. This was a big reason why they brought in Dejounte Murray, who is a big step up from Hunter when he's on. Murray can take over a game.
The Hawks need Murray to exploit shifting defenders after Young draws the initial attention. Miami will throw multiple looks at Young. They'll blitz him, especially if he gets into a rhythm. When he gets rid of the ball, the Hawks need to attack fast as Miami is in recovery. Playing with pace isn't just about transition. It's all about quick, threatening, downhill decisions in the half-court.
And when Atlanta isn't able to create leverage against closeouts and on second actions, Murray needs to do his one-on-one thing in getting to his midrange jumper. And he needs to make them. Perhaps a lot of them. There will be stretches of this game where Miami grinds Atlanta's offense down, Young is bottled, and Murray needs to simply get some buckets.
That's what this will come down to for the Hawks. Can they play fast, even after makes and in terms of attacking multiple closeouts, to create as many chances as possible against an unset and/or scrambling Miami defense? And can Murray be the All-Star second scorer that Atlanta needs him to be when Young starts getting hounded?
If so, Atlanta can win this game and secure the No. 7 seed. After that, they can worry about pulling off a miracle against Boston.