ATLANTA — As the Atlanta Hawks wrapped up their first practice of a new season, Mike Woodson implored his team to take advantage of this once-in-a-decade opportunity.
“Mentally, we’ve got to step it up a notch,” the coach told his players, gathered around him Thursday in the middle of their Philips Arena practice court.
But one thing is clear without extra time in the film room: The Hawks must stop — check that, slow down — Dwyane Wade if they want to advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1999, which also was the last time they had home-court advantage.
M-V-3 is the league’s leading scorer, a guy who literally took a young Miami Heat team on his back and lifted them back to the playoffs after a 15-win season. He’s a guard on a mission, still angry about those who wondered if he’d seen his best days after two injury plagued seasons.
Now, he’s ready to take his well-controlled wrath out on the Hawks in what appears to be the most intriguing Eastern Conference series of the opening round. Game 1 is Sunday night in Atlanta.
“Oh, man, I don’t think anybody shuts him down. He’s proven that this year,” Hawks forward Marvin Williams said. “But we have some athletic guys who can really help out. Whoever has the assignment of guarding him is going to have a tough assignment, but they’ll know the rest of the team has their back.”
Atlanta did a good job on Wade in two regular-season games. He hit only 9-of-24 shots in a December matchup, then was limited to a pair of free throws — one of his most effective weapons — in a February loss to the Hawks. He scored 21 points in each, nine below his league-best average of 30.2.
But Wade torched Atlanta for 35 points on 13-of-19 shooting (plus 9-of-10 foul shots) in Miami’s lone victory over the Hawks this season (He sat out the teams’ final regular-season meeting Tuesday, a meaningless game with both teams already locked into the 4-5 seeds in the East).
“He’s just relentless in getting to the basket,” said Joe Johnson, the Hawks’ leading scorer. “He shoots a lot of free throws. It’s tough. Everybody, all five guys, have really got to be in sync trying to stop him.”
Woodson shrugged off the inevitable questions about shutting down Wade, stressing that Miami is not a one-man team.
Four other players averaged in double figures, led by rookie Michael Beasley at 13.9, and several Atlanta players mentioned 3-point specialist Daequan Cook, who scored nearly two-thirds of his field goals from beyond the arc.
“It’s not our job to sit here and just try to figure out how to stop Dwyane Wade,” Woodson said. “I don’t think you can do that. Their supporting case was good enough to get them into the fifth spot this year. I look at the Miami Heat as the Miami Heat, as a team, and we’ve got to figure that out.”
In three games that mattered during the regular season, Atlanta held the Heat to just under 84 points a game, far below its 98.1 average.
Again, Woodson doesn’t much stock in what happened before the playoffs.
“During the season, we played them well,” he said. “But this is playoff basketball. Only time will tell when we step out on the floor Sunday and see where we are.”
The Hawks are certainly more balanced than Miami. Johnson is the go-to scorer, leading the way at 21.4 points, but six others averaged between 15.6 and 11.5. At the defensive end, they have a bunch of athletic wing players who can step out to help on Wade, from 6-foot-5 Maurice Evans to 6-9 forwards Williams and Josh Smith.
All will be needed against D-Wade, even if Johnson draws the primary assignment.
“We’ve definitely got to have a good team effort,” Smith said. “One man is not going to stop him. You need second and third defenders trying to slow him down a little. When he gets doing, everybody else is going to get going on that team. You understand that he’s going to score points, but if we can neutralize him a little bit I think we’ll do really good.”
Johnson is looking forward to his head-to-head showdown with Wade. For all his accomplishments, including three All-Star appearances and a spot on the U.S. national team at the 2006 world championships, the Hawks’ soft-spoken star is still viewed as being a significant notch below players such as Wade, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.
Last season, Johnson stepped up big in several playoff games when the Hawks surprisingly extended eventual champion Boston to seven games in the opening round. He’s itching for the chance to lead his team to a series win, knowing that would give a major boost to his reputation.
“You get that type of respect for how you perform during the postseason,” Johnson said. “During the regular season, you get your name out there, you get known. But the postseason is where legends are made.”