Improving Hawks visit slumping Heat

MIAMI — The Atlanta Hawks, who were eliminated from the playoffs two years in a row by the Cleveland Cavaliers, are playing as if they want another shot at LeBron James and friends.

The Hawks, who visit the struggling Miami Heat (2-7) on Tuesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena, are off to a 7-2 start, tied for second in the Eastern Conference with the Toronto Raptors.

Cleveland (8-1) is alone in first place.

The Hawks, who have been off since beating the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night, are playing better defense this season, in part due to the addition of shot-blocking center Dwight Howard.

So far, the Hawks lead the NBA — by a wide margin — in terms of fewest points allowed in the fourth quarter, 20.1. The second-best fourth-quarter defense belongs to the Boston Celtics, who are allowing 25.8.

“We try to wear teams down with our depth — maybe that's what it is,” Hawks small forward Kent Bazemore told Atlanta media when asked about the fourth-quarter play. “The fourth quarter is when you hone your focus. That's winning time.”

Howard leads the team in the paint. He is averaging 15.2 points, 12.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks.

He will face talented Heat center Hassan Whiteside, who has eight double-doubles in nine games this season.

But while the Howard-Whiteside matchup bears watching, the Hawks figure to have a big advantage at power forward with Paul Millsap, who leads the team in scoring (16.7 points per game). Millsap was also a second-team All-Defense player last season, and the Heat don't really have an answer for him at that spot.

Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder, who averages 16.3 points, leads the team in assists (6.2 per game) and gets the offense going with his great speed. He, too, figures to have an edge since the Heat are missing point guard Goran Dragic, who sat out the past two games due to a sprained left ankle.

Bazemore averages 11.3 points, and Hawks wing guard Kyle Korver, who is one of the best shooters in the league, spreads the floor by averaging 9.8 points, including 45.0 percent accuracy on 3-pointers.

Leading the Hawks' bench brigade is Miami native Tim Hardaway Jr., who is averaging 12.3 points. Hardaway, whose dad was a former Heat star, is playing very well, shooting 61.5 percent on 2-pointers and 34.8 percent on 3-pointers.

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, who did not attend Monday's practice due to a personal issue but is expected to be at Tuesday's game, preaches defense.

“Any time we hold a team to 20 or less points in a quarter, he lets us know it's well-appreciated,” Bazemore said. “That's what he loves. That's what a lot of our guys love. It's our calling card.”

On Tuesday, the Hawks will try to shut down a team that is already sputtering.

The Heat, after falling at San Antonio 94-90 on Monday, have lost five in a row and will now have to face a more-rested team in the talented Hawks.

Dragic, who has been replaced in the starting lineup by Josh Richardson, had a walking boot removed from his foot on Monday, when he rode an exercise bike for the first time since his injury.

The Heat likely will try to get Dragic back in time for their Thursday home game against the Milwaukee Bucks.

In the meantime, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra made a lineup change Monday, starting Derrick Williams at power forward and benching Luke Babbitt.

Williams, who played a combined total of just three minutes in Miami's first seven games as Spoelstra went with Babbitt and others in the rotation, scored five points in 16 minutes against the Spurs.

“He gives us a good burst of energy and athleticism,” Spoelstra said of Williams, who likely will match up against Millsap. “He just needs to continue to build and do what he is doing, which is working to get better.”

Williams showed his athleticism in Miami's first possession Monday, working off a screen, taking one bounce and hitting a corner mid-range jumper.

“I just want to play hard and be consistent,” Williams said. “I want to bring energy, effort and efficiency.”