It was somehow fitting that the Atlanta Hawks clinched the top seed in te East on Friday night against the team that dominated the conference for four consecutive years.
The Heat long ago lost its crown as the best team in the Eastern Conference, but the changing of the guard seemed official at Philips Arena in the final game of the regular season between the two teams. And while the Hawks have the No. 1 seed for the playoffs now locked down, the future remains murky for the Heat.
This much is clear, though. The Heat better keep fighting for that seventh seed and a first-round playoff matchup with LeBron James. A series against these Hawks probably wouldn’t last very long.
The Heat simply was no match for the Hawks this season, losing all four of its games against the Eastern Conference’s surprise juggernaut. Miami’s final loss of the season series — a 99-86 shellacking — felt like a facsimile of all the others. The Heat never really had a chance, and trailed by as many as 26 points during the game.
With hometown rapper 2 Chainz performing before, during and after the game, the Hawks and their fans partied all night. Before the game, Atlanta’s magic number to clinch the East was two, but the victory against the Heat coupled with a loss by James’ Cavaliers to the Brooklyn Nets, gave the Hawks the regular-season Eastern Conference title.
The Heat remained seventh in the East despite the loss, but now leads the Boston Celtics by only one game in the standings.
“I think we believed in ourselves at the beginning of the year, but there probably weren’t a lot of people who thought we’d be here,” said Hawks sharpshooter Kyle Korver, who had eight points.
The Hawks’ closest thing to a star player is Al Horford, the power forward who helped Bulls center Joakim Noah lead the Florida Gators to back-to-back NCAA championships. Horford had 15 points against the Heat, going 7 of 9 from the field in 30 minutes. DeMarre Carroll, Atlanta’s defensive specialist, led the Hawks with 24 points. He shot 8 of 12 from the field and 3 of 5 from three-point range.
“I don’t think it was necessarily a lack of effort tonight,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They just outplayed us on both ends. Carroll really came out and imposed his energy on the game that first half. I don’t think he really got any basket that was a designed play for him.”
With precision passing, motion off the ball and cold efficiency, the Hawks (55-17) sliced and diced the Heat’s defense with ease.
Carroll just happened to be the open man more often than not in the first half, so he scored the points. Atlanta doesn’t have a go-to scorer, but, despite playing without starting point guard Jeff Teague, the team had 31 assists on 37 field goals, and shot 51.4 percent from the field.
The Heat trailed by double digits for most of the game and, playing in its final night of a four-game road trip, Miami (33-39) shot just 31.7 percent in the first half.
“They’re a complete basketball team, so you really can’t pinpoint it to their offense, which had us moving, and broke us down in the paint repeatedly almost every other possession,” Spoelstra said. “But on the other end, we just didn’t consistently move them and share the ball.”
Luol Deng led the Heat with 17 points, and Dwyane Wade, playing with a sore left knee, had 13 points. Mario Chalmers had 13 points off the bench, and Henry Walker, in the starting lineup once again, had 12 points. The Heat was 11 of 35 (31.4 percent) from three-point range.
The Heat was without injured centers Hassan Whiteside and Chris Andersen for this final litmus test against the Hawks, and while the Heat out-rebounded the Hawks 40-39, the team lacked interior defenders to protect the rim. Injuries and hard luck have been the stories of this season for the Heat, but those things really had nothing to do with the way Atlanta handled the four-time defending Eastern Conference champions this season.
Wade said after the game that he expects to have fluid drained from his left knee on Saturday in Miami. Wade missed the Heat’s game on Wednesday against the Boston Celtics, and averaged 15 points during the road trip.
Whiteside offered a closer glimpse at his injured hand before the game. It looked painful.
Whiteside split his right hand between his forefinger and ring finger during the Heat’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday. It’s a significant injury and could sideline him for several games, or perhaps longer. Whiteside cut his hand on the rim and the wound required 10 stitches. The laceration split the webbing between his fingers.
There is no timetable for Whiteside’s return, but Spoelstra said the team’s center likely would be back for the playoffs. The injury currently is too painful for Whiteside to catch a basketball, according to Spoelstra.