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By Brian Edwards
**No. 4 Atlanta vs. No. 5 Miami**
Series Price: Atlanta -155, Miami +135
Series Format: 2-2-1-1-1
Skinny: Atlanta (47-35 straight up, 43-38-1 against the spread) has built on its impressive post-season showing last year by garnering the No. 4 seed in the East and the home-court advantage that comes with it in the first round of the playoffs. After taking Boston to seven games thanks to a trio of home wins in front of raucous crowds at Philips Arena that conjured up memories of the 1980s when Dominique Wilkins and Doc Rivers were the most popular show in town, the Hawks have been dominant at home this year. Not Cleveland-like dominant by any means, but Mike Woodson’s team definitely plays its best basketball at Philips, where crowds were extremely sparse for nearly a decade prior to the three wins over the Celtics last April.
Joe Johnson remains the catalyst for this squad and might be the most underrated player in the league. The Arkansas product averages 21.4 points, 5.8 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game. Mike Bibby wasn’t 100 percent when he was acquired in a deadline-day trade last February. That was evident in the playoffs when he was clearly outplayed by Boston’s Rajon Rondo. However, the veteran guard is back at full strength and enjoyed an excellent season, averaging 14.9 points and 5.0 assists per contest. Most importantly, he has provided Johnson with a teammate he can trust to hit big shots at crunch time.
Atlanta doesn’t have an imposing 7-footer on its front line, but that certainly doesn’t mean you can get to the rim against the Hawks without resistance. In fact, they have one of the NBA’s premier shot blockers in Josh Smith, who has averaged 2.4 blocked shots per game during his five-year career. Al Horford is the team’s second-year center who is a bit undersized at 6’10”. Nevertheless, his muscle, smarts and heart allow him to compete with any big man in the league. Furthermore, Horford is a winner who led Florida to a pair of national titles at the collegiate level. As a rookie in the playoffs, Horford averaged 12.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game against the Celtics.
When Josh Childress bolted to Europe before the season, the defection seemed to steal some of Atlanta’s momentum coming into this year. However, new General Manager Rick Sund made a pair of shrewd moves by signing Mo Evans and Ronald “Flip” Murray, essentially replacing Childress with two versatile players. Murray has enjoyed his finest season as a pro, shooting at a career-high level from the field (44.7%), 3-point range (36.0%) and the free-throw line (76.0%). He has been instant offense off the bench, scoring at a 12.2 PPG clip.
One key Atlanta player we haven’t touched on yet is fourth-year forward Marvin Williams, who is averaging 13.9 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. Williams recently missed 16 games with a lower back injury that the Hawks feared would end his season. But the UNC product looked good in two games this week and if he’s not back to 100 percent, he’s not far from it. It remains to be seen if Woodson will put him back in the starting lineup or bring him off the bench.
Miami (43-39 SU, 40-40-2 ATS) hit rock bottom last year just two seasons removed from winning the NBA title. The Heat traded Shaq to Phoenix and Dwyane Wade missed most of the year with various injuries. But under first-year head coach Eric Spoelstra and with Wade returning to MVP-like form, they are the fifth seed in the East.
Wade enjoyed a career year, leading the league in scoring with a 30.0 PPG average. He also averaged 7.5 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game. Wade doesn’t have the dominating center he had in Shaq when Miami beat Dallas in the NBA Finals, but he does have a pair of outstanding rookies on his side in Mario Chalmers and Michael Beasley. And veteran mainstay Udonis Haslem is still around.
Haslem (10.6 PPG, 8.2 RPG) missed the last six regular-season games with a thumb laceration that required six stitches. He is “probable” for Game 1 but might have to play with the stitches still in his right thumb (shooting hand). I once played in high school with four stitches in the middle finger of my non-shooting hand. It’s do-able, especially for a warrior like Haslem at playoff time, but there’s no doubt that it has a negative impact on your play. I thought it mostly hindered catching the ball and using your hands on defense.
If Miami is going to win the series, Beasley could be the key. His play has steadily improved all season and the Hawks had no answer for him when these teams played in late February.
Gambling Notes: Las Vegas Sports Consultants opened Atlanta as a five-point favorite for Game 1 with a total of 189. As of Friday afternoon, most books had the Hawks as 4 ½-point ‘chalk’ with the total adjusted to 187. The Heat are plus-170 on the money line (risk $100 to win $170).
For our purposes, Atlanta slumped down the stretch with a 3-8-1 spread record in its last 12 games. On the other hand, the Heat finished the regular season on a 6-2 ATS surge.
The ‘under’ cashed in all four head-to-head meetings between these squads. The 'under' went 42-38-2 overall for the Hawks, 23-18 in their home games. Meanwhile, Miami watched the 'over' go 45-36-1 overall, 24-16-1 in its home assignments.
Miami owns a 21-8 spread record in the last 29 encounters with the Hawks. However, I’m not sure that stat has much relevance since Atlanta was the biggest joke in the league (besides the Clippers) for nearly a decade until this time last year.
Outlook: As a bettor, I think you always have to approach things one game at a time. With that said, if there’s a strategy for wagering on this series beforehand, I think it’s to get behind the home teams. Both squads have been mediocre on the road all year.
Atlanta was ok versus the number (21-20 ATS) on the road, but it limped to a 16-25 SU record. Miami posted a 15-26 SU ledger and a 20-20-1 ATS mark when it went on the road.
I think the Hawks advance but it might take them seven games to do so. They might get one in South Florida and close it out in six.
Future Bets: I don’t think either team can get past Cleveland in the second round, although I wouldn’t be surprised if the Hawks held serve at home against the Cavs and pushed them to seven games. Nevertheless, even at generous odds, I don’t think you waste even a small amount on a wager for either team to win the East or the NBA title.
Now I’m ok with taking the Hawks in this series at the minus-155 price that most books had available on Friday. In fact, I recommend that bet. Yes, it’s a tad ‘chalky’ but if it starts to look iffy in the midst of the series, a money-line play on the Heat in Game 5 would most likely present a chance to “hedge out.”
**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**
--Will the officials come into play in this series? Might the NBA prefer to see a LeBron-D-Wade matchup for TV ratings in the second round? On the surface, I think such a suggestion is preposterous. However, noted NBA columnist Sam Smith hinted at the notion in a sports radio interview I heard earlier this week. Then a few hours later, I had the same question posed to me when I was a guest on Fox Sports Radio in Southwest Florida (Naples/Ft. Myers). Wade certainly gets a lot of calls, but most of those are deserved as he relentlessly attacks the basket. VI’s Chris David shot down the suggestion on Thursday’s edition of the Power Hours on VI Radio. David said, “Maybe down here in South Florida, but I doubt you’ll see a game called one-sided up in Atlanta.”
--David predicted the Hawks would win this series, but he didn’t feel like they had much of a shot against Cleveland. He called for the Cavs to win in five games, but didn’t dismiss the possibility that Atlanta might be able to take the series to six games. David also predicted the Lakers would beat the Cavs in the NBA Finals in a seven-game series.
--I’m going with the Cavs to beat the Lakers in a six-game series.
--For what it’s worth, the aforementioned Smith called for the Heat to advance past Atlanta in a moderate upset. He also indicated that the Bulls might be a surprisingly tough out in the first round (but there might be some homer-ness to that since he’s covered the Bulls for decades).
--When looking at this series, throw out Atlanta’s 81-79 win over Miami earlier this week. Wade, Haslem and Jermaine O’Neal didn’t dress for the Heat and most of Atlanta’s starters saw limited minutes. That leaves us with the three previous head-to-head meetings that have relevance this year. Back on Dec. 12, Atlanta went into American Airlines Arena and captured an 87-73 victory as a two-point underdog. In the rematch at the same venue on Jan. 26, Miami pounded the Hawks 95-79 as a three-point home favorite. At Philips on Feb. 27, Atlanta won a 91-83 decision as a 5 ½-point home favorite.
--In Miami’s win over the Hawks, Wade exploded for a game-high 35 points. However, he was held well under his average in the other two meetings, scoring 21 points both times.
--For Gator fans like me, this series will feature a matchup of the two best power forwards in school history, Haslem and Horford. In Atlanta’s 91-83 win in February, Horford went off for 21 points and 22 rebounds. Haslem also had a double-double with 10 points and 11 boards.
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