The Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers spent the regular season separating themselves from the rest of the East.
They both repeated the process during the first two rounds of the playoffs, setting the stage for an epic Eastern Conference Finals collision with an NBA Finals berth on the line.
The Hawks come into Wednesday's series opener fresh off consecutive mildly impressive—but ultimately successful—six-game series wins. Atlanta outlasted the Brooklyn Nets and Brook Lopez's 20-point, 10-rebound barrages in the opening round, then it (narrowly) survived a slew of late-game heroics from Paul Pierce and an overall stiff test from the Washington Wizards.
Cleveland kicked off the postseason by sweeping the feisty-but-not-quite-ready Boston Celtics. LeBron James and Co. then stormed out of a 1-2 series hole by winning three straight games to dispatch Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls in the conference semis.
With no Kevin Love (shoulder) and a banged-up Kyrie Irving (knee, foot), the Cavs aren't working with a full deck. But they hold the league's ultimate trump card in James, a four-time MVP and two-time world champion who's averaging 26.5 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game in the postseason.
The Hawks, overseen by former Gregg Popovich disciple Mike Budenholzer, play a San Antonio Spurs-style equal-opportunity offense. Four of Atlanta's players are averaging between 17.1 and 15.3 points per game in the playoffs.
It's the ultimate system vs. stars battle with the chance to secure the game's premier prize at stake. One team will move a step closer toward realizing that goal when the festivities get underway in Game 1.
Will the top-seeded Hawks resemble the group that stampeded to a conference-leading 60 victories in the regular season? Or can the second-seeded Cavs, who have won 18 of their last 23 games, continue following James' lead on the path to playoff glory?
|Eastern Conference Finals Schedule|
|1||Wednesday||May 20||8:30 p.m. ET||Atlanta||TNT|
|2||Friday||May 22||8:30 p.m. ET||Atlanta||TNT|
|3||Sunday||May 24||8:30 p.m. ET||Cleveland||TNT|
|4||Tuesday||May 26||8:30 p.m. ET||Cleveland||TNT|
|5*||Thursday||May 28||8:30 p.m. ET||Atlanta||TNT|
|6*||Saturday||May 30||8:30 p.m. ET||Cleveland||TNT|
|7*||Monday||June 1||8:30 p.m. ET||Atlanta||TNT|
|NBA.com (*If necessary)|
Did the Hawks Peak Too Early?
The Hawks have yet to put their best foot forward on the postseason stage.
Truth be told, this team hasn't come close to hitting its high note for a while. After stumbling to an uninspiring 7-6 start, Atlanta went full-on wrecking ball mode through the months of December and January. That has left skeptics wondering whether this is truly a great team, or simply a solid squad that enjoyed a couple great months.
|The Highs and Lows of Atlanta's Roller-Coaster Ride|
|Period||Record||Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating||Net Rating|
|Feb.-End of Season||20-14||104.7||102.3||Plus-2.4|
The Hawks' emergence as a defensive power (seventh in efficiency during the regular season) has helped them weather the storm of their offensive lulls. The fact that they sit second in postseason defensive efficiency is a major reason why they still have a playoff pulse.
But Atlanta will need to put up points to keep up with a Cleveland offense posting a playoff-best 108.2 points per 100 possessions. The Hawks need their shooters to rediscover their strokes quickly, as guys such as Jeff Teague (39.9 from 46.0) and Paul Millsap (42.2 from 47.6) have struggled to recreate their regular-season success from the field and Kyle Korver has had difficulty hitting from anywhere (38.5 percent from the field, 35.0 percent from three).
The Hawks scored well against the Cavs in the regular season, averaging 109 points per game while winning three of their four meetings. Even though Cleveland looks different now than it did during most of those contests (only one came after December), ESPN Insider Amin Elhassan wrote that the Cavs defense could help the Hawks climb out of their offensive funk:
A gimpy Kyrie Irving and Matthew Dellavedova are a massive step down defensively over what the Wizards rolled out defensively to slow down Teague. Much of Atlanta's offense is initiated by dribble penetration, followed by ball and body movement to take advantage of shifting help defense. Meanwhile, although the Cavs' on-ball defense improved tremendously since the midseason acquisitions of Mozgov, Shumpert and Smith, they still don't deal well defending sets that involve secondary or tertiary rotations.
Being even a step slow with defensive reads can be a death sentence against Atlanta. But if the Cavs are crisp in their rotations, the Hawks will need their scorers to win their individual matchups.
In today's NBA, great offense can beat great defense. The Hawks had that weapon in their arsenal at times during the season, and they'll need to recover it in order to survive this series.
Is LeBron's Supporting Cast Ready for This Challenge?
It's tough to say the Cavs need James to dominate after just watching them win a series in which he shot just 39.9 percent from the field and 10.7 percent from downtown. But his volume contributions—26.2 points, 11 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game—were invaluable against Chicago.
James' numbers could be even more important against the deeper, more cohesive Hawks. Even with Irving declaring he's "going to go" in the series opener, via ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin, a team can only lean so hard on a point guard with injuries in both legs (left knee tendinitis, right foot strain).
Not to mention that each step of the 23-year-old's playoff trip is the furthest he's ever advanced at this level. And as the margin for error decreases, the question marks surrounding Irving's playmaking ability and defensive effort grow exponentially bigger.
The Hawks have too many weapons for opponents to hide any defensive liabilities. Their versatile bigs demand attention away from the basket, so Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson have to make a defensive impact outside the restricted area. With Atlanta deploying a horde of three-point threats, Cleveland needs the likes of J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to help keep the perimeter battle even.
James can't slay this 60-win dragon on his own. He needs more help. He's not only leading the Cavs in postseason points, rebounds, assists and steals, he's also pacing some of those categories by wide margins: 67 more points and 46 more assists than anyone else on the team.
The Cavs need a third scorer to fill Love's shoes. That player might even need to serve as the No. 2 option depending on how Irving's body holds up.
James' greatest superstar gift is his ability to elevate the guys around him, but those players must do their part to solve this puzzle.
Obvious Adjustments Each Team Must Make
Atlanta: Playing With Pace
It sounds like a recipe for disaster. Why would any team willingly subject itself to open-court battles with a 6'8", 250-pound freight train like James?
The answer is pretty simple actually. The Cavs don't like to run.
The Hawks aren't exactly a run-and-gun team—sixth in playoff pace, 15th during the regular season—but they should adopt the style for this series. Atlanta needs all the easy baskets it can create right now, and getting bogged down into a half-court affair could play right into Cleveland's hands.
"The Hawks are surrendering a postseason-worst 1.02 points per possession in isolations, according to Synergy Sports," Bleacher Report's Alec Nathan observed. "Going up against a Cavaliers team that ranks first in postseason isolation frequency could spell trouble."
Atlanta needs optimal spacing, deep dribble drives, precision passes and timely cuts to generate open looks. Cleveland can simply clear out for James—or Irving if he's healthy—and expect something good to come out of it. Which one sounds easier?
The Hawks could also use tempo to exploit their advantage in depth. With both Love and Anderson Varejao (torn Achilles) on the shelf, the Cavs have two trustworthy bigs: Thompson and Mozgov. Atlanta has to run that pair out of the gym.
Cleveland: More Mozgov
The Cavs may well have saved their season when they parted with a pair of first-round picks to pry Mozgov away from the Denver Nuggets in early January. The 7'1" center could have the same type of impact on this series.
Mozgov has held opponents to just 34.7 percent shooting at the rim this postseason. Among high-volume rim protectors, only MVP-in-waiting Anthony Davis has been more effective (33.3).
It's no surprise, then, that the Cavs are at their defensive best when Mozgov is patrolling the paint.
|The Mozgov Effect on Cleveland's Playoff Defense|
|Situation||DRtg||DReb %||Opp eFG%|
As numberFire's Bradon Gdula noted, Mozgov is a critical piece of Cleveland's defensive puzzle:
The Cavs pull in nearly six percent more boards with Mozgov than without him, and they block more shots, as well. The difference in block percentage (just 1.0 percent) doesn't actually do Mozgov's shot blocking any justice. His personal rate (7.5 percent) is currently tied with Tim Duncan's mark in 2001-02 for 21st all-time in the playoffs.
With all of that in mind, it might be time to boost Mozgov's 25.2 minutes per game. With so much of Atlanta's offense revolving around dribble penetration, Cleveland needs to keep its best insurance policy under the rim.
The Hawks can exploit a plodding rim protector. They rendered Roy Hibbert essentially useless while pushing the top-seeded Indiana Pacers to seven games in last year's opening round.
But Atlanta has also had problems with size. Lopez abused the Hawks frontcourt for 19.8 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.2 blocks a night in the first round.
Mozgov's mobility will help him handle the challenges presented by Paul Millsap and Al Horford. Unless Atlanta's frontcourt grows overnight, it might struggle to find an answer for Cleveland's center.
Atlanta: Kyle Korver
The Hawks have needed Korver's offense this postseason, even though the sharpshooter hasn't provided much of his own. He's lost more than 14 percentage points from the league-best 49.2 percent three-point conversion rate he flashed during the regular season.
He hasn't scored as often or as efficiently during the playoffs. But the Hawks have still benefited tremendously from his presence. Atlanta averaged 6.5 more points per 100 possessions with him than without him over the first two rounds.
His shot might not be falling at the moment, but it's still one that demands respect from the defense. Betting that an incendiary career 43.2 percent three-point shooter won't find his rhythm is literally playing with fire.
But trying to contain his involvement presents its own set of problems, as NBA.com's Steve Aschburner noted:
Hitting or not, Korver demands relentless attention that, in his cuts and curls and perpetual motion, often is beyond the stamina and concentration of many defenders. The semifinals dragged down Korver's career playoff 3FG percentage from .388 to .376, but regression to the mean suggests something ominous for some opponent soon.
Considering the impact Korver has made without shooting well, imagine how effective he'll be when those triples start tickling the twine again.
Until that happens, the Hawks need him to keep shooting and continue searching out other ways to influence the outcome of a game. He can play a big role without scoring.
But it's hard to see Atlanta tallying many wins without a few fiery shooting displays from Korver.
Cleveland: Iman Shumpert
With Irving hobbled and James in the crosshairs of Atlanta's defense, the Cavs will have to squeeze some offense out of Shumpert. Whether he's spacing the floor with his three-point shot or creating for himself off of the dribble, he can provide points in spurts.
But his biggest impact on this series will be felt on the defensive end.
The 6'5", 220-pound swingman has the size, athleticism and instincts to defend multiple positions. That versatility will be key considering Cleveland may ask him to chase Korver around screens, impeding cutting lanes for DeMarre Carroll and stopping dribble penetration by Teague and Dennis Schroder.
The Cavs, who aren't exactly littered with defensive stoppers, have deployed Shumpert at several spots already this postseason. So far, he's answered all of those calls.
"Shumpert...has been spectacular on defense," wrote Fear The Sword's Chris Manning. "In the playoffs, players Shumpert has guarded are shooting 38 percent from the field and 24 percent on 3-pointers. Again, he's putting up those numbers defending multiple positions and that's huge for a Cavs team that still isn't great on defense."
If Atlanta's bigs can pull Thompson and Mozgov out of the paint, Cleveland will have to deny Atlanta at the point of attack. Shumpert is the Cavs' best bet to make that happen.
DeMarre Carroll vs. LeBron James
James just endured a six-game slugfest with Bulls defensive ace Jimmy Butler. LeBron will be similarly tested by Atlanta's perimeter roadblock DeMarre Carroll, a 6'8", 212-pound package of grittiness and defensive intensity.
"They're similar in their own ways," James said of Carroll and Butler, via Northeast Ohio Media Group's Joe Vardon. "...They have some very active bigs behind them. It gives them the ability to push up on me and trust that those bigs behind behind them are going to protect them. I relish the challenge, I love the challenge in both of them."
James put up numbers against Butler, but it wasn't his cleanest work. As ESPN Stats & Info noted, Carroll was also able to muddy things up for James in the regular season:
The Hawks shouldn't bank on seeing the same results.
James has a better team now than he did during most of those matchups. He's also a different type of scorer during the postseason, trading perimeter touches for post-up chances and focusing more of his attacks near the basket.
But the Hawks won't ask Carroll to silence James. They know that isn't happening.
Carroll simply needs to make James work—at both ends of the floor.
Carroll has to limit James' touches on the block or force the ball out of his hands when he gets it there. Carroll must make James actually defend him. If Carroll converts his open looks and causes havoc with his cuts, James won't be able to roam into Atlanta's passing lanes.
This matchup is going to be a win for Cleveland, potentially a lopsided one. But if Carroll can keep himself in James' vicinity, the Hawks can use their advantages elsewhere to scratch out a win.
Betting against King James is rarely a good idea. This is not one of the exceptions.
When the Hawks are at their ball-sharing, sweet-shooting best, they have what it takes to beat the Cavs. But Atlanta hasn't consistently played at that level for months. And Cleveland—despite Love's absence, Irving's ailments and James' shooting struggles—has the postseason's best net efficiency rating (plus-9.5 points per 100 possessions).
The Hawks have home-court advantage and health on their side. But the Cavs are rolling into the series opener fresh off their biggest win of the postseason (a 21-point drubbing of Chicago in Game 6).
If Irving looks remotely healthy, the Cavs should draw first blood in this series. Even if he doesn't, James should still serve as the deciding factor in this contest—and probably the entire series.
Prediction: Cavs beat Hawks 99-92.