Cleveland Cavaliers Face Their First True Test of 2016 NBA Playoffs

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterMay 2, 2016

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - APRIL 01:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks to drive against Thabo Sefolosha #25 of the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on April 1, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Detroit Pistons put up a respectable fight in the first round, but the Cleveland Cavaliers' postseason effectively begins now. The Cavs and Atlanta Hawks are set to meet in a rematch of last year's Eastern Conference Finals.

Cleveland has waited over a week after sweeping Detroit during the opening round, while the Hawks needed six games to dispose of the Boston Celtics. The Cavaliers should be considered heavy favorites yet again but need to be cognizant of Atlanta's elite defense, chemistry and experience, all of which Detroit lacked.

It took a spirited effort from all members of Cleveland's Big Three to defeat the Pistons. Taking down Atlanta will prove more challenging.

Why Atlanta Will Be a Formidable Opponent...

This isn't quite the 60-win version we saw a year ago, but these Hawks are still very, very good.

Atlanta finished fourth in the East at 48-34, ranking second in defensive rating (98.8) and assist ratio (19.1) among all NBA teams, according to NBA.com. This commitment to defense and moving the ball has helped them become a regular postseason participant, even without a true superstar.

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"They're a balanced team," Cavaliers forward Richard Jefferson said of the Hawks, per Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com:

The biggest challenge against them is their balance. It's been well-documented, it's been talked about how many guys they play, the system in which they play in. Kyle Korver obviously is huge for them, Jeff Teague and their versatile bigs. They've got two Tristans on their team. Guys that can guard 1-5, that can switch out, that guard on the perimeter and guard on the post. Those are valuable assets.

As with Detroit's offense, shots are spread around to the open hand. Six different Hawks scored over nine points per game, led by Paul Millsap's 17.1. Cleveland can't rely on stoppers like LeBron James or Iman Shumpert to zero in on one or two players, as Atlanta will just find the next guy waiting.

Millsap and Al Horford are still the most underrated frontcourt duo in the league. Both can score, rebound, pass and play high-level defense. They rank first and second in contested shots per game this postseason, respectively, according to NBA.com. Their work on Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson in the paint will be pivotal for Atlanta.

While the Pistons threw everyone from Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at James, Atlanta might be even better prepared. A defensive game plan has to start with containment of James and Kyrie IrvingExpect to see a heavy dose of both Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha.

Bazemore has been vocal about his upcoming assignment. "I'm ready," Bazemore said of James, per Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.com. "I'm excited. We got a rematch from last year. They swept us so...[we] definitely have a chip on our shoulder about that."

If Bazemore isn't enough to slow James down, Sefolosha just might. The 6'7", 220-pound veteran was sixth among all small forwards defensively this season by holding opponents to just 40.7 percent shooting from the field, per B/R Insights.

What about Irving? The 24-year-old is leading all postseason scorers at 27.5 points per contest. Detroit's platoon of Reggie Jackson and Steve Blake could do nothing to slow him down, but Atlanta very well could.

Teague, primarily known for his blazing speed, has elevated his defense to elite levels. He was third among all point guards in defensive field-goal percentage, holding his opposition to just 41.9 percent shooting, according to B/R Insights.

Overall, this group is deeper, more talented and more experienced than the Pistons. Every single game could be decided in the final possessions.

...And Why Cleveland Will Win Anyway

Until Atlanta proves it can actually win a single game against the Cavaliers in the postseason, there's no reason to suspect an upset here.

Cleveland has never lost a playoff game to the Hawks, posting a perfect 8-0 record with a 15.6-point average margin of victory. The Cavs haven't lost to the Hawks since going 1-3 against them in the 2014-15 regular season.

The main reason for this dominance has been—you guessed it—LeBron James.

During these eight postseason meetings, James has averaged 32.0 points, 9.6 rebounds and 7.6 assists on 48.9 percent shooting from the field. He's never scored less than 23 points in any single game. Per B/R Insights, James is averaging 0.84 points per minute during this time. This translates to a remarkable point every one minute and 19 seconds he's on the court.

Atlanta's best hopes for stopping James, Bazemore and Sefolosha, both struggled during the regular season with this matchup. In 24 minutes and 57 seconds being guarded by the pair, James registered 30 points on 12-of-24 shooting (50.0 percent) from the field, via NBA.com.

Cleveland was the only Eastern Conference team Atlanta failed to beat this year. The Cavs held them to under 45.0 percent shooting in all three games and are 34-8 this season (including playoffs) when holding opposing teams to 45.0 percent shooting or worse.

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 11: Tristan Thompson #13 of the Cleveland Cavaliers blocks Paul Millsap #4 of the Atlanta Hawks during the second half at Quicken Loans Arena on April 11, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Hawks 109-94. NOTE TO USER
Jason Miller/Getty Images

James isn't taking that history for granted, per Fedor:

At the end of the day, what happened in the past doesn't define what happens today. We've got to focus on the now, and this is a team that's coming off a very good and challenging first-round series against the Celtics. We understand that their coach is going to have those guys well-prepared and well-driven for the series starting Monday.

Regardless, the Cavs are just too talented to fall this early in the process. The Hawks will make this a competitive series and maybe even steal a game. They play hard, move the ball and defend at a high level, all factors that can disrupt the juggernaut Cavaliers.

If Detroit was an extra-credit assignment, think of Atlanta as the first real test. It's far from the final exam, but nothing Cleveland can take lightly and still hope to pass. Look for the Cavs to take this series in five games, all while tuning up for bigger goals ahead.

Greg Swartz is the Cleveland Cavaliers Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @CavsGregBR.

Stats via Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.


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