PER Diem: May 1, 2009
Game 6 between the Heat and Hawks will come to one thing: Dwyane Wade
Amid all the talk about insults and physicality and whatnot, let's try to distill the single most important variable heading into Game 6 between the Hawks and Heat:
When Dwyane Wade makes jump shots, the Heat win.
When Dwyane Wade misses jump shots, the Hawks win.
That's how it's been through each of the first five games, as the Hawks have effectively walled Wade off from the basket and forced the league's leading scorer to beat them over the top. Wade averaged almost 10 free throws a game in the regular season but only 6.4 against the Hawks, mirroring what happened in their three regular-season meetings.
Meanwhile, Wade's 3-point attempts have nearly doubled, as he's connecting on 6.8 per game, up from 3.5 a night. All those attempts paid off twice this series. Wade made a combined 10 of 18 3-pointers, as well as several long 2-pointers, as the Heat won Games 2 and 3 to briefly take a 2-1 lead.
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- Up three late in the game? Foul!
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- Quick note on network broadcasts
- Roy's lack of help leads to series loss
He only made 3 of 16 in the other three games, however, and the Heat lost all three by double figures. Wade's numbers in Game 5 weren't as bad as Games 1 and 4, but they were also misleading. Atlanta had a 23-point lead before he got rolling, and the Heat never seriously threatened despite his second-half outburst.
Of course, that takes us to the second variable: Wade's balky back. It tightened up on him in Game 4, and the result was four first-half air balls. It would hardly let him move in the first half of Game 5, leaving him a decoy on offense and a traffic cone on defense.
Wade has had treatment the past two games and indicated Thursday it was feeling better. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Wade has had similar episodes at several points in the season and was able to play through them. A brief look at Wade's stats suggests he played through it rather well, too.
Injuries, of course, have become a major theme here, and not just for Miami. Atlanta's Al Horford will sit out after spraining his ankle near the end of the first half of Game 5, opening up a hole in the Hawks' entire plan for bottling up Wade. A major reason he hasn't been able to get to the rim consistently is because Horford and Josh Smith have been lying in wait, all but ignoring Miami's ineffective role players in order to build a wall around Wade.
With Horford out, however, it puts little-used Solomon Jones into Atlanta's frontcourt rotation, likely for heavy minutes. Atlanta essentially used a three-man rotation in the frontcourt all season with Smith, Horford and Zaza Pachulia. Now the plan must change at a very crucial juncture. While Jones might be a decent deterrent for Wade as well -- he is a long shot-blocker in the mold of Smith -- he also averaged a foul every 5.4 minutes, and keeping Wade off the line is as important as contesting his shots.
One of those Jones fouls, of course, was on Wade in the second quarter of Game 2, leading to one of the many testy exchanges between the two sides in the past two games. Miami was particularly upset with the antics of Atlanta's Mario West and Josh Smith. Wade asked "What is this game coming to?" regarding West's over-the-top celebration of a stop on Wade to end the first half of Game 5. And Smith's between-the-legs dunk attempt drew the ire of Spoelstra after the game.
Injuries have also had an impact on the perimeter, where starting small forwards Marvin Williams and Jamario Moon are both out. The loss of Moon was felt in the first half of Game 5 because Wade's back wasn't loose enough to defend Joe Johnson. Moon could have done it but James Jones, his replacement, was totally overmatched, and Johnson had his first decent game of the series with 23 points.
Another matchup to watch is Jermaine O'Neal against Jones and Pachulia. O'Neal has been the one reliable second option for Miami in this series -- in fact, his playoff PER of 22.05 is in the league's top 20 -- and he should have his way against the slightly built Jones. If he can also succeed in drawing fouls on Pachulia, Miami can expose the Hawks' glaring lack of quality frontcourt depth.
Keep an eye on Flip Murray, as well. Atlanta's top reserve has finished games on most nights, and when he gets matched up against Miami's Mario Chalmers he's been able to devour him on post-ups.
But ultimately these games usually come down to the stars. Atlanta has managed to win three times, even with its own star having a horrendous series (Johnson's postseason PER is just 9.05), largely because of its ability to bottle up Miami's top gun in a way few other teams have.
So watch Wade, and watch his jumpers. If he's comfortably splashing in 20-footers, these teams will meet again Sunday in a rubber match. And if he can't? The Hawks should celebrate their first series win in a decade though let's hope it's not with another between-the-legs dunk attempt.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
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