Previously, on "The Hawks and The Cavaliers" ...
Sing it, Terrance:
OK, fine. There was other stuff.
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The Cleveland Cavaliers' defense continued to short-circuit the Atlanta Hawks' offense. The Cavs mostly kept the Hawks' starters whisper-quiet, holding Mike Budenholzer's club to 41.8 percent shooting from the floor, a 6-for-26 mark from 3-point range, and a rate of offensive efficiency (92.4 points per 100 possessions) comfortably below the woeful Philadelphia 76ers' dead-last regular-season mark.
Tristan Thompson repeatedly beat Atlanta's lackadaisical boxouts, grabbing 16 boards, five of which came on the offensive glass. The soon-to-be restricted free agent vacuumed up more than 21 percent of available misses while he was on the court, which would've been the NBA's fourth-best rebounding rate this season.
Cleveland's supplementary wings, who figured to be especially important with All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving ruled out due to left knee tendinitis, came through. After contributing just four points on 1-for-16 shooting in the Cavs' Game 1 win, Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert and James Jones bounced back in a big way, combining for 36 points on 13-for-29 shooting, including a 9-for-18 mark from downtown.
Mostly, though, it was LeBron James, who can do absolutely everything and who absolutely did. The four-time MVP turned in a 30-point, 11-assist, nine-rebound masterpiece in a 94-82 win that gave Cleveland a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals, and a chance to close out the Hawks in Ohio.
Three Things to Look For in Game 3
The Cavs' suffocating defense
Cleveland's 20th-out-of-30 regular-season finish in points allowed per possession is a little misleading. That includes the rougher-than-rawhide 19-20 start, during which the rebuilt Cavs were trying to build a credible defense with one capable defensive big (who went down before Christmas) while fielding a wing rotation consisting of past-their-prime vets or not-ready-for-prime-time players and operating with a version of LeBron stuck on "chill mode" or, worse, without him.
After Jan. 13 — when LeBron returned after two weeks away, the first time he played alongside midseason acquisitions J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov — the Cavs ranked 15th among 30 NBA teams, allowing 102.5 points per 100 possessions. After Jan. 23 — when Shumpert debuted after missing nearly six weeks with a separated right shoulder — Cleveland ranked a downright respectable 12th, allowing 101.5 points-per-100.
They've continued that improvement in the postseason, choking out the Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls and Hawks to the tune of 98.1 points-per-100 through 12 playoff games, the No. 1 defensive efficiency mark in the 2015 playoffs. There's some Eastern Conference distortion to that number — the top four teams in postseason defensive rating all hail from the East; it's harder to stop most Western playoff teams — but it's still nothing to sneeze at, and still indicative of how big a difference Cleveland's midstream additions and adjustments have made.
Opponents are scoring a microscopic 90.9 points-per-100 when Mozgov's on the floor this postseason, and shooting just 38.3 percent from the field when the massive, charismatic and stylish Russian is on the court. He's made life miserable on opposing drivers and post players, holding them to a 37.2 percent mark when he's defending the rim, per NBA.com's SportVU player-tracking data.
For all the concerns about how Cleveland's offense would suffer from replacing the floor-spacing Kevin Love with the interior-bound Thompson alongside Mozgov — justifiable concerns, as lineups featuring that pairing have scored just 99.8 points-per-100 in the playoffs, miles below Cleveland's full-postseason average of 107.4-per-100 — the Cavs' D has been airtight when Mozgov and Thompson share the floor.
Thompson's quickness and athleticism have helped tighten up the Cavs' pick-and-roll defense, given head coach David Blatt a superior option for recovering out to pick-and-pop shooters and added a second energetic rim protector to the mix. With Mozgov and Thompson sharing the floor, the Cavs have held postseason opponents to just 90.3 points-per-100 in 157 total minutes.
Shumpert's been exactly what general manager David Griffin had hoped for — a committed and tenacious defender with the agility, quickness and active hands necessary to take on Cleveland's toughest wing assignments. He helped limit Celtics sparkplug Isaiah Thomas to 33.3 percent shooting in Round 1, helped hector Bulls star Derrick Rose into 38.5 percent shooting in Round 2, and has stayed attached to Hawks sharpshooter Kyle Korver off the ball, with the bellwether of Budenholzer's offense taking just 16 shots in two games.
Shumpert's holding the men he's guarding to just 26.5 percent from 3-point range in the playoffs, per SportVU, and doing stellar work off the ball in ways that don't show up on even the advanced stat sheet. His work drew a post-Game 2 rave from LeBron: "Look at those All‑Defensive teams, and — obviously he has a small window with us — but he will be on the All‑Defensive team in this league very soon."
Now that Korver will miss the rest of the postseason after sustaining a high right ankle sprain late in the third quarter of Game 2, Blatt will have the option of deploying Shumpert on Hawks point guard Jeff Teague, or whichever Atlanta wing gets hot ... if that ever happens again, that is.
Where does Atlanta turn for points?
DeMarre Carroll came back from the left knee sprain he suffered in Game 1, but clearly struggled to find both the lift on his jumper and the bursts of quickness needed to slash and cut off the ball, scoring just six points on 2-for-6 shooting in 34 minutes. That's a problem, because he entered Round 3 as the Hawks' leading postseason scorer ... which was, in itself, something of a problem, since Carroll was getting buckets in large part because Atlanta's opponents had successfully limited the Hawks' four All-Stars. That's held true through two conference finals games.
Teague has seemed rattled by the Cavs going underneath high ball screens on him, giving him acres of space to shoot. He's shooting 40 percent from the floor and 25 percent from 3-point range through two games, and has attempted just four free throws in 70 minutes in this series. He's not the only Hawk failing to cash in on clean looks, though, as Atlanta shot just 23.3 percent on open jumpers in Game 2.
With Cleveland's bigs hanging back rather than hedging hard on the pick-and-roll, there's been precious little room on the interior for Paul Millsap and Al Horford to go to work. Millsap's looked disconnected and overwhelmed, unable to create separation from Thompson and shooting just 5-for-19 from the floor through two games.
Horford's been better, shooting 65 percent in the series, but the Cavs' scheme has aimed to make it much more difficult for him to get the ball; he's taken half as many shots (20) as Teague (40). The Hawks have hurt their own cause there, at times failing to find Horford on possessions where he's had a smaller defender, like Jones, checking him down low on a switch. Atlanta desperately needs to find ways to get Horford more involved earlier and more often; he is their best player, and he can hurt Mozgov both inside and out if given the opportunity. (Provided, of course, he's in working order after suffering a quad injury late in Game 2.)
Korver's absence complicates matters even further. Yes, the sweet-shooting swingman has struggled to find airspace and rhythm this postseason, seeing his field-goal and 3-point shooting marks plummet from 48.7 percent and 49.2 percent, respectively, during the regular season to 39.1 percent and 35.5 percent during the playoffs. But the threat that he could bust loose at any point mattered, as did the fact that the opposition had to devote its top wing defender to tracking him all over the floor; the Hawks have scored 6.7 fewer points per 100 possessions with Korver off the court this postseason, according to NBA.com's stat tool.
Continuity matters, too, and with Korver gone, the Hawks lose an awful lot of that. Atlanta's top seven postseason lineups have all featured Korver, and Budenholzer's got one five-man unit without Korver that's played more than 10 minutes and outscored the opposition during the playoffs — Millsap, Carroll and the incredibly dangerous reserve trio of Kent Bazemore, Pero Antic and Dennis Schröder, which has topped opponents by five total points in a whopping 29 minutes of postseason floor time.
We'll likely see Bazemore, who provides activity, athleticism and defensive intensity on the wing, replace Korver in the Hawks' starting lineup in Game 3. He has shared the floor with the other four Atlanta starters for 67 minutes in 26 combined regular- and postseason games. The group's been outscored by five points in that limited run. He shot a respectable 36.4 percent from 3-point land during the regular season, but he's just 4-for-21 (19 percent) from deep during the playoffs.
It seems unlikely that Bazemore will draw the same type of defensive attention that Cleveland's paid to Korver; that, in turns, ought to mean a more tightly packed interior, with fewer driving lanes for Teague and Schröder, and more congestion between Millsap, Horford and the basket every time they turn and face up. The Hawks have thrived with a pace-and-space attack all year; now, wounded and reeling, they'll have to hope their three remaining All-Stars — Teague and Millsap, especially — can find a way out of the mud in time to avoid an 0-3 hole.
Will/should Kyrie play?
Irving scarcely looked like himself in Game 1, seeming unable to explode off his ailing wheels on offense and looking like a liability on the other end. (The few times that Teague's seemed to show life in this series, it's been when he could blow past Irving at the point of attack.)
That was especially concerning, because Irving had a full five days off between closing out Chicago and kicking off the conference finals to get right. If he couldn't get back to something approximating healthy after all that rest and treatment, then how could he with shorter windows through the balance of the series?
After the Cavs dominated Game 2 without him, though, the thought process changed. All Cleveland needs to do is win two more games in five tries — with three of the five coming at Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cavs are 24-2 since Jan. 15 — to advance to the NBA Finals, which will begin on June 4, no matter how quickly either conference final concludes. With Dellavedova stifling Teague — the Aussie's held the Atlanta triggerman to 0-for-9 shooting, according to Vantage Sports — and James clearly capable of orchestrating the offense, why not keep Kyrie in street clothes, see how things go in Game 3, and maybe buy him as much as two weeks of downtime to get ready for the championship push?
The answer, as Blatt sees it, is that the Cavs still have two more games to win, and even with the Hawks hurting, that's no sure thing.
“He’s a big part of the team and this series is not finished,” Blatt said Saturday, according to Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal.
With it remaining unclear whether rest, even two weeks' worth, would solve Irving's woes, Kyrie stuck around after the Cavs' Saturday film session to get some shots up, reportedly wearing a brace on his left knee during the brief workout. The Cavs might not need him to get by at this point, but if he's able to go, the Hawks will have an even steeper hill to climb to make this a series.
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