The Miami Heat won the NBA title in 2006 with Dwayne Wade and Shaquille O’Neal teaming up. Now Wade will join Kobe Bryant in the task of winning a championship without the big fella. A healthy Dwayne Wade has helped the Heat make a remarkable turnaround to land the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference, but they will have their work cut out for themselves against the No. 4 seed Atlanta Hawks, who famously gave the Boston Celtics all they wanted and more in the first round a season ago. Atlanta continued its progress in 2009, pushing the 50-win mark, after winning just 37 games in the regular season last year. Jimmy Boyd breaks down this first round Eastern Conference Playoff Series below.

No. 4 Seed Atlanta Hawks +3000 to win the Eastern Conference – Home court should prove to be a major factor in this series. Atlanta has earned the home court by achieving a higher seed. We all know how the Hawks more than held their own in last year’s first round series with eventual champion Boston, and now the Heat will get a taste of Atlanta in the postseason. The Hawks were a much better home team than road team this season, going 31-10 at home compared to 16-24 on the road (1 game remaining). The Hawks met the Heat four times during the regular season and won three of those matchups, including both home meetings. Miami really struggled away from home this season, going just 15-26. The Hawks are a young, very athletic team that is very difficult to defend. With point guard Mike Bibby being on board for an entire season, the team was really able to gel offensively with him running the show. But it’s the improvement on the defensive end that has been the biggest reason why the Hawks have gotten better. They rank 10th in the NBA in both points allowed and field goal percentage defense.

No. 5 Seed Miami Heat +2500 to win the Eastern Conference – With no better than the Heat have played on the road this season, it will be very difficult to win this series. Like Atlanta, they are a much better home team. But the Heat have one thing that the Hawks don’t have and that’s Dwayne Wade. Wade is leading the NBA in points per game and he is also averaging a staggering 7.5 assists per contest. It was Wade who took over in the 2006 NBA Finals when the Heat were in a 0-2 hole against Dallas so I’m not going to count them out at any point. The additions or Michael Beasley and Jermaine O’Neal give the Heat front line scoring they haven’t had since Shaq left. If Miami can make this a half court series and take advantage of a two-man game between O’Neal and Wade, they can make this one interesting.

Prediction: Atlanta Hawks in 7
I expect this to be a very hotly contested series but at the end of the day the Hawks have too many athletic weapons for the Heat to compete with. Dwayne Wade will do his best to keep his team alive, but the Heat likely won’t have enough of their other players step up to help him out.

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