Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade (left) San Antonio Spurs power forward Tiago Splitter (right) and Miami Heat power forward Udonis Haslem (right) during the second half at American Airlines Arena. The Heat won 105-100. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
When the NBA Finals tip-off tonight (Thursday) at 9:00 pm, the Atlanta Hawks are not directly involved. As you may know, the Hawks have never appeared in the conference finals during their history in Atlanta, and, at times, the NBA Finals seem like a distant dream that will never be reached.
Alas, the Heat and Spurs will square off in what could be an epic 7-game series, and while I could write a 5,000 word biopic on the series itself, that wouldn’t be entertaining for Hawks fans. With that mind, let’s take a look at a sort of “what to watch for” for supporters of the local team.
- Tiago Splitter – The Spurs big man is a big topic of a conversation in many NBA circles as the Finals approach. I wrote a full-scale post about him last week as a member of my Hawks “wish list”, and he’s the only primetime player in the series with pending free agency. With the Hawks bringing in former Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer as head coach (along with former Spurs front-office employee Danny Ferry), Splitter has built-in relationships with the team, and that seems to lean toward a potential arrival. On the floor, it will be interesting to see a) how much he plays against the smaller Heat, and b) how effective he is as a defender in the pick-and-roll as Wade and Lebron attack the rim at will. Get your notepads out for this one.
- The Coaching Match-up – For all of the negativity surrounding Larry Drew in the past (shout-out to Al Horford’s foul trouble treatment), he was actually pretty tremendous this season. However, the Gregg Popovich/Erik Spoelstra match-up brings two of the league’s best coaches to battle, and the tactical decisions will be incredibly interesting. As a Hawks follower, I’ll be studying Popovich the most, as it is reasonable to assume that the incoming Budenholzer will bring a very similar style and deployment. I’ve long thought that Pop was the best coach in the league, and if he can bring this particular roster incarnation to a win over a Lebron-in-his-prime-led Heat team, that is incredible.
- Al Horford as Tim Duncan – This may seem like a stretch, but when I think of all the projectibles and comparisons in the league for the best player on the Atlanta Hawks, Al Horford, the guy that I keep returning to is Tim Duncan. Before you tune out this entire paragraph, I’m certainly not saying that Horford has the ceiling of “best power forward of all-time and top-10 all-time player” like Tim Duncan has been. That’s simply not the case, but if you examine their games, the similarities are certainly there. Both players are hybrid 4/5 guys with great size, both guys play tremendous defense, but do so without elite athleticism or shot-blocking pedigree, and both players are known for their tremendous fundamentals. Horford is more of a pick-and-pop offensive player while Duncan is absolutely devastating on the block (still!), but if you’re a Horford fan, you should be rooting for him to take full notes on Duncan’s performance in this series, even at the advanced age of 37. The best hope for Horford’s career is a leap to where he was in the second half of the season (as a 20/10 guy) coupled with some Spurs-style management to build around him.
- The Stage – When was the last time that the Hawks had the collective attention of the NBA nation, much less the entire sports community in the country? This stage shines through like few in sports, and it has the unique opportunity to spread over two weeks as a result of the 7-game format. In order to bring the Hawks to the “major market” player that they could be, this type of exposure could be critical. For as much grief as the Spurs take for being “boring” and unwatchable, they are actually one of the most entertaining offensive teams in the league, and their profile has undeniably been raised nationally as a result of their multiple title runs.
- Lebron James – This one is cheating because it isn’t particularly Hawks-related, but it’s undeniable. Watching Lebron James at this “peak” stage in his career is a once-in-a-generation experience. Short of Danny Ferry deciding to “tank” the 2013-2014 season in an effort to grab Canadian high schooler Andrew Wiggins, the Hawks likely won’t be blessed with the opportunity to have a legitimate, “best in the league” player for some time, so this is as close as they’ll get to following that type of greatness. Alas, James is playing at a level last seen by Michael Jordan in the 90’s, and if he can carry a hobbled Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to the title, he’ll vault himself even further into the “best ever” conversation. Can Chris Paul or Dwight Howard (who the Hawks now-famously tampered with this week) make that type of impact? That’s debatable, but the mere presence of James brings this series to another level.
In the end, this should be a wildly entertaining series for both Hawks fans and NBA fans in general. The “old guard” Spurs squaring off the “new kid” Heat is a great storyline, the series features two of the best players I’ve ever seen in Duncan and James, and the high-level strategy of both coaches (and really, both organizations) is worth the price of admission for diehard fans. As a Hawks fan, there is a tinge of jealousy, but as a basketball fan, this is the best stage in the world, and I can only hope to see Danny Ferry and Mike Budenholzer leading this organization toward that promise land in the future.