How They Got Here
Atlanta: It is fair to say that Atlanta shocked the basketball world during its stellar regular season. It’s also fair to say the Hawks have disappointed the basketball world in the postseason, which is a bit of a bummer.
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The Washington Wizards are a tough out, and there is no shame in needing six games to down the Wiz, but it was the way the Hawks downed Washington that unnerved. Atlanta’s sometimes-frustrating play from the first round carried over into the Eastern Conference semifinals. It’s understandable for the team’s offensive marks to fall against a superb defensive squad like Washington, but despite some strong wins and two 4-2 series victories at no point in this postseason run, have the Hawks given you encouragement that they can come up with the same sustained execution and activity that marked their regular-season turn?
That turn saw Atlanta win 60 games and grab the top seed in the East. By way of that production, the Hawks will have the home-court advantage over Cleveland in the third round, and the group has far more experience as working teammates as the Cavaliers, but another gear needs to be found.
Cleveland: Cleveland’s second-round triumph over Chicago wasn’t a singular function of Chicago’s embarrassing meltdown, but it is important to remind that the Bulls were 1.9 seconds away from heading into overtime at home in Game 4 of the series, possibly taking a 3-1 series lead over the favored Cavaliers along the way.
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Chicago’s confidence fell apart after LeBron James hit a game-winning shot to end that contest in regulation, and the Cavs rose to the occasion. Nothing came easy, James still had to work through Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving sat the second half of a blowout win in Game 6 after suffering yet another knee injury (he’ll play in Wednesday’s Game 1 with a sprained right foot and aching left knee), but the team is developing a rapport with yet another version of its starting lineup, following the loss of Kevin Love to shoulder surgery.
If you don’t remember most of the Atlanta-Cleveland matchups from the regular season, you’d be excused. Long-forgotten names dot the box scores, with the lost-for-the-year Anderson Varejao starting two games, and the perhaps lost-for-the-ages Shawn Marion starting just as many. Kyle Korver combined for just four shots, making one, over the first two contests in the season series. Al Horford missed one game, as did LeBron James. Kevin Love – he’s not here anymore.
Cleveland absolutely destroyed Atlanta in the teams’ first meeting on Nov. 15 by a 127-94 score. Both teams were trying to right their seasons after unsteady starts, and the Cavs unloaded on the Hawks to the tune of a 28-point first half deficit with James and Irving combining for 52 points despite only combining for 55 minutes.
Atlanta returned the favor a little over a month later on Dec. 17, banking on six 3-pointers from reserve guard Shelvin Mack to top Cleveland by a 127-98 total. Dion Waiters, in perhaps his last great game with Cleveland, scored 21 points off of the bench. Mack played just nine minutes in Atlanta’s series against Washington, and Waiters was dealt to Oklahoma City three weeks after this game.
By Dec. 30, the Cavaliers were fast approaching their low point. James was in the middle of a needed two-week breather when the Hawks topped the Cavs 108-101 in Atlanta. Kevin Love missed seven of eight shots, and the game featured several Cavaliers (Joe Harris, the departed A.J. Price, Lou Amundson, Waiters and scoreless starter Mike Miller) that will not see significant or any action at all against Atlanta in the conference finals. Cleveland would go on to lose seven of eight following this one.
With Atlanta fully established as the East’s top seed, Cleveland was healthy and full of traded-for reinforcements in time to take the Hawks seriously on March 6, though it didn’t help much as the Hawks won 106-97 at home. Save for Love (who took all but one of his 11 shots from long range, finishing with 14 points), Cleveland's and Atlanta’s rotations (Thabo Sefolosha was injured at the time) looked about the same then as they do now, as the Hawks’ passing put six players in double figures.
Likely Starting Lineups
Cleveland has had to think on the fly at the absolute worst time, and the team’s bench will suffer for it, but it’s hard not to consider a lineup featuring Timofey Mozgov at center, Tristan Thompson at power forward, James at small forward, Iman Shumpert at off guard and Kyrie Irving at point guard as absolutely championship-worthy.
It’s a confident group, with James weathering the Jimmy Butler-led storm in its series against Chicago, Thompson outright dominating that series at times in Love’s absence, and Shumpert fighting through a groin pull to go off at times against Chicago.
Atlanta’s award-winning starting five includes Al Horford at center, Paul Millsap at big forward, DeMarre Carroll at the swingman spot, Kyle Korver at shooting guard and Jeff Teague at point guard. The Hawks famously nominated all five for the January Player(s) of the Month award, and in a nice show of perspective and humor, the NBA rewarded them for their work. With James taking part of the month off and the rest of the East failing to step up to the plate, it was a deserved nod.
When the ball is buzzing for Atlanta, they are a killer stop. Paul Millsap has looked run down at times in the postseason, however, though Carroll’s surprising scoring touch has helped prop up the team. For Carroll to continue in his offensive-minded ways (he’s averaging a team-leading 17.1 points per game while making 44 percent of his threes) while guarding James would be an absolutely remarkable achievement.
Matchups to Watch
Jeff Teague vs. bad habits
Everyone’s stats tend to go down in the postseason. Slower games, improved competition and the ability to key in during a seven-game series make it so even an approximation of your regular-season statistics is an accomplishment. Teague’s numbers have gone down during this playoff run, which would be fine enough if he hadn’t appeared an afterthought of sorts in too many games against both the Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards.
Teague has had his moments, to be sure, but he has to keep his foot on the pedal if the Hawks want to ignite an offense that has a legitimate chance to put up some 110-point games against Cleveland. He cannot be the sort of point guard who merely minded the store in seasons prior to this one.
LeBron James vs. bad habits
It was recognized as soon as it became apparent that the Cavaliers were soon to trade for Kevin Love that it was going to have to be the team’s offense that put Cleveland over the championship top. Removing Love and placing Tristan Thompson into the team’s lineup does help the defense, but the same ideal remains – LeBron and his cohorts will have to put together some special, special runs on that end if they want to deliver on what James came back to town to deliver.
To that end, LeBron and his head coach David Blatt need to find a way to make the team’s offense less predictable. They can’t allow yet another dogged defender (in Carroll) to make James work for everything, and they need to use Atlanta’s defensive aggressiveness against itself. That will be no easy task against the sixth-best regular-season defense, but James has done this before.
Two former Knicks vs. supposed irrational confidence
Cavaliers swingmen Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith were absolutely correct in shooting without hesitation against Chicago, the two overcame both a groin injury (Shumpert) and rust following a two-game suspension (Smith) in order to shoot over 39 percent from long range, opening up both passing lanes for LeBron and rebounding opportunities for Tristan Thompson. There was nearly a palpable sense of giddiness from either player as they relished the chance to play the “oh-anyone-but-that-guy” role.
This confidence isn’t irrational. These two have to let fly in order to put the pressure on the Atlanta defense. Shumpert has a nice midrange game and Smith has shown in the past that he owns a solid passing touch and either can finish off of a lob, but these players aren’t doing their job if they’re not acting as that guy.
Kyle Korver vs. The Glare
Korver has not carried over his wicked marksmanship into the playoffs, shooting 35 percent through 12 games – the realm of the average and workable for most NBA mortals, but a bitter disappointment for the man that an astounding 49.2 percent during the regular season.
This isn’t a damnation of long-range basketball, as the four conference finalists took more regular season threes than anyone else this year. The 3-point specialist, however, is a prized commodity that is often locked-in on during the press of a postseason tournament. It’s true that everyone knows what Kyle Korver does best while preparing for games in January, but the Cavs aren’t just flying in for one game before heading off to Charlotte. They’ve spent days preparing for Korver’s range.
With the stakes so high he can’t help but be a major focus when two teams play potentially seven times in 14 days. Korver has to come back. He has to find a way to free himself yet again.
How Atlanta Can Win
Not only does the team’s defense have to prepare itself for the wild ride of staying in front of LeBron James, but the squad’s lacking defensive rebounding has to prepare for what Tristan Thompson brings to town. The Hawks have to get stops, they have to secure the glass and Korver has to leak out in transition for the waiting 3-point attempts that will follow.
What can’t burden Atlanta, underdogs until April, is the weight of having to pull off what they surprised everyone with when there was snow on the ground. The Cavaliers love playing from behind and will relish their ruination role on the road to start the series. Jeff Teague, especially, has to embrace his gig as a leader, keeping the Cavs on skates early in possessions.
How Cleveland Can Win
Kyrie Irving will have five full days off in between Game 6’s win over Chicago and the dawn of Wednesday’s Game 1, and while he won’t be completely right until his season ends (whenever it ends) he can’t help but be more of a threat this time around.
The Cavs need him to provide some pop. They need him to keep Jeff Teague on his hip and the Hawks defense wondering just what sort of move he’ll attempt to pull off – an Isiah Thomas-styled finish in the paint, a Steve Nash-styled dribble-around and pull-up 3-pointer, or the obvious pass to the waiting hands of a cutting Cavs swingman.
Cleveland had been staring down Chicago since July, mindful of Derrick Rose’s return and the addition of Pau Gasol, and it took care of business already. The same could be said for James’ 2011 Miami Heat team, which fell quite handily to a surprise outfit from Dallas after topping Chicago. Dallas earned that Finals win, as the Heat weren’t prepared.
This year’s version of the Bulls wasn’t nearly as fearsome as the 2011 setup, though, and James was so much younger then. He’s older than that now. I think this is how that song went.
Totally Subjective Entertainment Value Ranking: 7 out of 10.
The Hawks just haven’t been anywhere near as fun to watch as the team that traipsed all over most of the NBA during the regular season. Lining up against what could be a lacking defensive team in Cleveland could be the cure to that aesthetic ailment, but after a month off (and considering the team’s lack of pop during a rather listless series against a clock-watching Brooklyn team), can that style be resurrected?
The Cavs, meanwhile, are dealing with a weary LeBron, a pinched Kyrie Irving and no Kevin Love. They thrilled at times against Chicago, but both of these teams are going to have to really focus on side-to-side execution and trust in the flow if we’re to get a thrilling series. For various reasons, we’re not getting either team at its best, and that’s a tough hole to dig out of.
Prediction: Cavaliers in five.
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