By Claudio E. Cabrera
The 2015 Eastern Conference Finals feature two teams: one that everyone predicted would make a pit stop here on their way to the NBA Finals and a team that no one expected to be anywhere the NBA Playoffs before the season started.
The Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers tip off their best of 7 series this Wednesday in Atlanta. While the Hawks won 3 of 4 games versus the Cavs in the regular season, two of those three wins for the Hawks came early in the season before the Cavs made their big deadline acquisitions. This past March, the Cavs visited the red-hot Hawks in Atlanta and lost a great game in which the Hawks’ ball movement was too much for the Cavs who were struggling on defense at the time.
The Eastern Conference’s two best teams now face off for a chance to play for the NBA Title and this will be familiar territory for LeBron James. While he isn’t facing the San Antonio Spurs, he is facing a Gregg Popovich disciple in Coach Mike Budenholzer and a team that runs the same exact system. But will it be the 2013 NBA Finals result or the 2014 NBA Finals result for LeBron?
Here are the 5 things to watch as the series begins:
1. Will the Hawks be able to bang on the boards with the Cavs?
The biggest factor in the Chicago Bulls’ demise against the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Semifinals was Tristan Thompson. While many thought the Chicago bigs would be a huge problem for the Cavaliers frontcourt entering the semifinals that wasn’t the case. Thompson cleaned house on the boards out-hustling Gasol, Mirotic, Gibson and Noah. The Cavs out-rebounded the Bulls in 4 of the 6 games and Thompson capped his great series with a 17-rebound performance in the Game 6 clincher in Chicago. T Top, as his Cavs teammates affectionately call him, nearly averaged a double-double for the series in points and rebounds.
While the Cavs only ranked 18th in the NBA in rebounding that was with Kevin Love playing the 4. While Love was a rebounding machine during his time in Minnesota, he was mostly stuck on the perimeter this season with Varejao and Mozgov handling most of the banging inside. Now, with Thompson anchoring the frontcourt with Mozgov, the Cavs have been rebounding machines. The Hawks, who ranked 28th in the NBA in rebounding with a -3 differential, have a tall order ahead of them with the Cavs’ front court. Al Horford and Paul Millsap are used to playing on the perimeter and not battling for position in the paint. We saw them struggle on the boards with active, tough players like Gortat and Nene in the Wizards series. When you throw in one of the best rebounding small forwards of all-time in LeBron James, the Hawks will need to find a way to keep these 3 players off the glass, as they are one of the smallest front courts in the NBA.
2. Will the real Kyle Korver please stand up?
While the regular season saw the Hawks playing a brand of basketball that had pundits affectionately calling them the “East Coast Spurs,” that brand of basketball has disappeared in the playoffs. What has been clear to anyone watching the Hawks is their reliance on Kyle Korver’s production, and so far this postseason, the sharp-shooting small forward has struggled.
The Wizards used a recipe of Bradley Beal and Otto Porter to bother Korver on the perimeter with their speed and length. They fought through screens and prevented clean looks for the All-Star forward. Korver only scored in double figures in Games 1 and 2 of the series and shot a paltry 28 percent from the arc against the Wizards overall.
With the Cavs moving to a lineup that features Iman Shumpert as a starter instead of JR Smith, due to his defensive ability, it will be interesting to see how much of an effect Shumpert will have on Korver.
The gameplan against the Hawks enacted by the Nets and Wizards has been to prevent Korver from getting off. The Hawks use Korver in pick and rolls and off run around screens in similar ways that the Heat and Celtics used Ray Allen. If Korver is able to create separation, the Hawks’ chances in this series greatly increase. But his inability to put the ball on the floor along with a lack of speed may make this another tough series for the star forward.
3. How many different looks will the Atlanta Hawks throw at LeBron James?
While many will look at LeBron James’ box scores throughout the 2015 Playoffs and point to the four 30-point games the King has had, that doesn’t tell the whole story. LeBron hasn’t been his usual efficient self throughout and here are the reasons why:
a. He’s taking bad shots. LeBron is shooting close to 15 percent from the 3-point line these playoffs averaging close to six 3 pointers a game. The Bulls did a magnificent job keeping him out of the point. The Celtics, who have no real threat down low to block shots, were at the King’s mercy despite his bad shooting from the arc.
b. He’s faced some tough defenders in Jimmy Butler and Jae Crowder. Both gave LeBron a tough time but Butler had a lot more room to work with due to big, shot blocking bodies like Noah and Gasol playing right behind him.
Will LeBron struggle as much in this series? No. I expect LeBron to have a huge series if he plays the majority of his basketball in the post and uses the pick and roll to drive the lane to either score or distribute to strong perimeter shooters like James Jones, JR Smith and Kyrie Irving. Like the Boston series, he has no real shot blockers to worry about in the undersized Al Horford and Paul Millsap. I think his main objective will be to get one of the Atlanta bigs in foul trouble consistently.
For the Hawks, they will need to keep LeBron out of the paint. They will assign Carroll to LeBron the majority of the game and hope he avoids landing himself in foul trouble. While they are both the same height, LeBron outweighs Carroll by close to 30 pounds. I expect James to pound Carroll in the post. To prevent this from occurring, the Hawks will need to play off of James and hope his cold perimeter shooting continues in this series. If James gets into the paint and posts up, the Hawks should switch off of Shumpert or Thompson, double LeBron, and make one of the Cavs role players beat them.
While Carroll did an admirable job guarding LeBron in the regular season, we can expect the young guard to find himself in foul trouble so don’t be surprised to see the Hawks also throw Kent Bazemore at LeBron; as well as play Paul Millsap on him. The Millsap move will be reminiscent of Gregg Popovich’s use of Boris Diaw in the 2013 and 2014 NBA Finals. Millsap may not be quick enough to keep up with James but his length and height will be bothersome.
4. Who will win the backup point guard war?
While many will look at the great point guard matchup between the Hawks’ Jeff Teague and the Cavs’ Kyrie Irving, the matchup that will hold great implications for both teams will be that of Matthew Dellavedova and Dennis Schroder.
Both backup point guards have played great basketball off the bench this postseason. Schroder has contributed quality minutes spelling Jeff Teague. He’s averaging over 10 points in these playoffs along with 5 assists. Dellavedova, who many looked at as a liability when Irving goes to the bench, played a great series against the Bulls averaging 9 points shooting over 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from the arc. He also did a great defensive job on the Bulls backup point guard Aaron Brooks and played tough minutes on Derrick Rose.
With Kyrie’s bum foot, expect to see a lot of Dellavedova harassing Jeff Teague. On the opposite end, expect Coach Budenholzer to play a 2 point guard lineup having Jeff Teague chase around the likes of JR Smith and Iman Shumpert while he sticks the long armed, “Baby Rondo” [as he’s called] Schroeder on Kyrie Irving.
Whoever can add an extra scoring and defensive punch off the bench for these teams will help a long way in determining who will win this series.
5. Who will average 20+ ppg for the Atlanta Hawks?
While the Hawks beat the Cavs 3-1 in the regular season with the crisp passing they exhibited all year, the playoffs call for a different type of basketball.
There was no Hawks player in the regular season who averaged over 20 ppg and the high scorer for them in this postseason is Carroll at 16 ppg.
While we saw a San Antonio Spurs team reach back-to-back NBA Finals and win 1 title against the Miami Heat with a similar offensive system, there’s a huge difference between a quartet of Duncan, Manu, Parker and Kawhi versus Korver, Horford, Teague and Millsap.
For the Atlanta Hawks to win this series, the balanced scoring approach where no player averages more than 16 ppg won’t help. While they will need consistent contributions from all, the Hawks will need one of their many All-Stars to step up and play out of the system to some extent averaging anywhere from 23 ppg and up. The Hawks wont be able to depend on a group of players averaging 15 ppg when the opposing team has 2 players that can drop 50 on any given night.
Over two decades ago, the Atlanta Hawks played two playoff series against the greatest player of all-time in Michael Jordan. When the Bulls visited Atlanta, the crowd would predominantly be Bulls fans, outnumbering the home team’s fanbase. While the Cavs aren’t as legendary as the Bulls and LeBron may not be as loved and reviled as MJ, every time LeBron goes to Phillips Arena there are as many cheers for him as there are boos.
While the Hawks beat the Cavs 3-1 in the regular season, these are the playoffs; and the familiarity teams gain with each other night to night has helped teams properly gameplan for the Hawks.
This, in combination with having the two best players in the whole series in LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, will allow the Cleveland Cavaliers to move on and end the Atlanta Hawks’ impressive dream season. While the Hawks will put up a fight, their lack of size and a go-to star not just at the end of games but throughout a full 48 minutes will doom their Finals hopes.
Cavs in 5.