LeBron James has a lot more help this time around
POSTED: May 2, 2016 9:21 AM ET
For the Atlanta Hawks, facing LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers is starting to look less like a matchup than a recurring nightmare.
The Hawks got swept by Cleveland this season, dropping the three meetings by an average of almost 10 points (109.3 to 99.7). When they met in the Eastern Conference finals last spring, the result was the same: four consecutive Cavaliers victories, an especially ignominious way for Atlanta's sparkling 60-victory season to end. And if you go back to 2009, the previous postseason clash, that ended in a sweep as well.
The concern this time, much as it was last year, is that Cleveland's ability to dispatch opponents efficiently gives it a tremendous advantage in rest, recovery and focus over a foe such as Atlanta. The Hawks wound up playing too many games last spring, getting taken to six games each by lower seeds Brooklyn and Washington before running into the Cavs' wall. Now they're two games behind again, having needed six games to get past the Boston Celtics while the Cavaliers swept Detroit and kicked back.
The core of Atlanta's team is back and, despite suffering 12 additional losses this time around, veterans such as Paul Millsap, Al Horford and Kyle Korver know what it takes to win games in May. The question is, knowing and doing are vastly different things. Cleveland didn't have Kevin Love at all in the 2015 East finals showdown and Kyrie Irving already was gimpy (before his blowout in The Finals opener), but Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova were worthy enough replacements to knock off the Hawks.
Nothing either of these teams did in the first round suggests anything significant change in this year's outcome.
LeBron James keeps up his Grim Reaper demeanor from the first round. The four-time Most Valuable Player was tolerating no nonsense from the pesky Detroit Pistons. He didn't get drawn into any back-and-forth with brash rookie Stanley Johnson, he didn't let some borderline or egregious blows from Andre Drummond and Marcus Morris rattle him and he didn't miss a beat in extending his personal playoff streaks to 16 consecutive Eastern Conference series won and 17 straight first-round victories.
And yet, as steely as James was in his approach, Cleveland's best player in Round 1 was point guard Kyrie Irving. Irving became only the second teammate to outscore James in a playoff series; the other was Dwyane Wade in the 2011 Finals. Irving averaged 27.5 points and crushed Detroit's defensive confidence by nailing 47 percent of his 3-pointers, many off the dribble. For what it's worth, James and Irving combined to score 54.8 points per game in the three against Atlanta during the season.
It could be that Atlanta's battles against Boston and high-scoring point guard Isaiah Thomas, was just what the doctor ordered to prepare Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder for what they'll be facing in Irving. In fact, the Hawks had better hope so, because unless their point guards outplay the Cavaliers' (including Dellavedova), it's hard to imagine Atlanta even pushing this to six games.
The Hawks will need to devote serious concentration to the basics up front, because they're not a great rebounding team -- certainly not offensively -- to begin with. But against Love, Thompson and James, they run the risk of giving up second-chance points in bushels, the very thing that can break down a defense or its practitioners' spirit.
Atlanta's defense might, in fact, be its greatest asset against the defending East champs. After limiting Boston to 38.8 percent shooting and 28.7 percent on 3-pointers in the first five games of the first round, it got stingier in the clincher (36.2 percent and 21.9 percent). During the regular season, the Hawks held 42 teams under 100 points and went 33-9. They held teams below 40 percent field-goal shooting 23 times and were 18-5. Unfortunately for Atlanta, Cleveland scored 109 or more in their three meetings and outshot the Hawks 45.1 percent to 40.7 percent.
1. Who draws the unenviable task of defending LeBron James?
This is the same question that Detroit had to answer, but never quite did, against Cleveland in the first round. In that series, it was Marcus Morris and Stanley Johnson. This time, it figures to be Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha and Paul Millsap. The guy charged with that responsibility in last year's playoffs, DeMarre Carroll, got hurt early in series and plays for Toronto these days, so there's no cavalry available to help there. Bazemore yields size and especially strength to James, while Millsap doesn't have the requisite mobility and might see his offense -- so important to the Hawks -- suffer if forced to shadow James.
2. Who is the X factor of this series?
J.R. Smith seems like a deserving choice here. The sleepy-eyed shooting guard can make awful decisions on the floor, but he's also more than capable of cleaning up his own messes. Smith was at his let-it-fly freest last round, draining 17 of the 33 3-pointers he launched while doing nothing in particular to hurt Cleveland in its mission. Smith is going to have to boost his production from the regular season if he's going to make an impact in this series; he averaged just 9.7 points against Atlanta and shot a frosty 28.6 percent. Al Horford, meanwhile, needs to makes sure he shows up in full for the Hawks after averaging 14.7 ppg and shooting 41.3 percent. The leadership and maturity his teammates seek from Horford are harder to find when his own game is off.
3. What should we make of the coaching matchup?
Atlanta's Mike Budenholzer was the NBA's Coach of the Year last spring, no small feat in a season when Golden State won seven more games than Atlanta. But there was this year's backslide in the W-L column, after a postseason in which Budenholzer seemed to react to other coaches rather than act first on his own. Cleveland's Tyronn Lue, meanwhile, was considered to be mostly a well-liked assistant who had potential but whose greatest asset when Cleveland GM David Griffin fired David Blatt at midseason was his affable bedside manner. Turns out, Lue gave Detroit's Stan Van Gundy all the adjustments and counters the veteran Van Gundy could handle, in terms of substitutions and strategizing. Lue isn't shy about calling a timeout to correct a problem quickly, rather than letting his guys play through things. And he is willing to tinker with his lineups in search of the ideal mismatches, regardless of the roster's pecking order or the minutes expected on a given night.
This isn't a classic showdown between rest and rhythm. Still, the extra games that Atlanta needed to smack down the Celtics might wind up taking a toll against an opponent that is laser-like in its quest to return to The Finals. The Hawks don't have the firepower to keep up -- its top three scorers in the regular season series didn't match James and Irving combined -- while James has superior help this time around. We'll give the Hawks one big night thanks to the way they play at home. Otherwise... Cavs in 5.
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