Hawks-Heat Preview

The Associated Press

The Atlanta Hawks own one of the best records in the Eastern Conference, but they didn't face the league's toughest competition over the first week.

That is about to change.

The Hawks begin a daunting stretch Monday night against the undefeated Miami Heat, their first of two games in four days with their Southeast Division rivals, who are off to their best start in franchise history.

Atlanta (3-1) has opened the season with two games against New Jersey, one with Washington and one with Houston. Those teams are a combined 3-10, and none are considered championship contenders.

Their schedule is about to get much more difficult.

After this game, the Hawks visit Chicago on Tuesday before returning home to open a back-to-back-to-back stretch with Thursday's rematch against the Heat. They'll play in Charlotte the next night and then conclude the three games in three nights stretch with a rematch with the Bulls on Saturday.

Atlanta will need to show much more urgency than it showed against the Rockets on New Year's Eve to come out of this next stretch with a winning record.

After winning their first three games by an average of 20.3 points, the Hawks appeared sluggish in Saturday's 95-84 loss to the Rockets. Joe Johnson and Al Horford scored 15 points apiece for the Hawks, whose starters were outscored 78-57. Atlanta finished with a season-low 16 assists, while Houston's Kyle Lowry recorded a career-high 18 of his own.

"They came out and played at a higher level than we did," Hawks coach Larry Drew said. "We didn't fly around and contest (shots). We reverted back into short close-outs. ... Shot selection was not very good either. The timing of shots were not good."

Another performance like that won't cut it against Miami, which is 5-0.

The Hawks dropped three of four to the Heat last season, with Johnson averaging 12.7 points on 35.7 percent shooting in the three games he played.

LeBron James averaged 33.3 points in the series, his highest against any East opponent. James didn't come anywhere close to that scoring output Sunday against Charlotte, but he didn't need to.

The Heat led the Bobcats by as much as 46 points and won 129-90 to match the third-largest margin of victory in franchise history.

"I think we're where we should be,'' said Dwyane Wade, who had 22 points. "I think we're only going to get better.''

The one-sided game allowed coach Erik Spoelstra the luxury of giving his starters plenty of time off in the fourth quarter. James finished with 16 points and nine rebounds, while Chris Bosh had 24 points and 10 boards.

No Miami starter logged more than 30 minutes.

"We wanted a complete effort,'' Bosh said. "I think we got it.''

Bosh set the tone early Sunday, scoring 20 of his points in the first half, and is playing with much more confidence after finishing with four points on 2 of 9 shooting in the season opener. The 6-foot-10 forward is averaging 21.8 points on 63.0 percent shooting in four games since.

Bosh averaged 19.7 points and 9.7 rebounds in three games against the Hawks last season - all wins.

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