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Hawks' stability takes on LeBron, Cavs' improvisation

Cavs' growth vs. Bulls shows they could take the series in 6

POSTED: May 18, 2015 11:19 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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DeMarre Carroll, the hero of clinching Game 6 for the Hawks, is part of a starting 5 that has stayed intact.

DeMarre Carroll, 25 points and 10 rebounds, and the Atlanta Hawks survive the Washington Wizards attempt to extend the series to a game seven, 94-91.

Looking at the 2014-15 NBA season in full, from the opening of training camps in October to the point we're at now, it's pretty clear the Atlanta Hawks' pursuit of a championship has gone largely according to blueprint.

By comparison, the Cleveland Cavaliers might as well have scribbled out their long-term vision on the back of a cocktail napkin, for all the permanence it's had in the actual unfolding.

Consider Atlanta's starting lineup in its season opener against Toronto way back on Oct. 29: Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carroll, Al Horford, Kyle Korver, Jeff Teague. Compare that to the Hawks' crew that started and eliminated the Washington Wizards on May 15, nearly six months later: Millsap, Carroll, Horford, Korver, Teague.

Look, every team has its ups and downs and unexpected happenings -- Thabo Sefolosha's fractured fibula on the streets of New York in April surely qualifies -- but continuity has been on Atlanta's side. It's one reason they only needed 10 games (5-5) to get traction and win 55 of their final 72.

Cavaliers Advance to the Eastern Conference Finals

The Cleveland Cavaliers punched their ticket to the Eastern Conference Finals thanks to a strong performance from backup point guard Matthew Dellavedova.

Now consider Cleveland. Its starting lineup in LeBron James' big homecoming game on Oct. 30 against New York: James, Kevin Love, Anderson Varejao, Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving. Compare that to the starting five that bounced Chicago from the postseason in Game 6 Thursday at United Center: James, Tristan Thompson, Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and Irving. The best-laid plans often get torn up like Varejao's left Achilles tendon or Love's dislocated left shoulder.

Thanks to what essentially has been a two-year process, Atlanta has reached the conference finals for the first time since 1970 -- when it resided in the Western "Division"and the NBA had only 14 teams.

Cleveland, on the other hand, went from starring only on draft-lottery night to an alleged instant contender once James decided to return to the franchise where he spent his first seven seasons. And even then, success hardly came overnight; the Cavaliers sputtered to a 19-20 start, using up half the season before they gained any real sense of self. That took two key trades, bringing in Shumpert and J.R. Smith from New York and Mozgov from Denver, as well as a two-week sabbatical by James to get right physically and mentally.

And even then, the Cavaliers have adapted and improvised on the fly. Losing Love at the end of the first round against Boston meant lineup adjustments, coach David Blatt settling on Thompson next to Mozgov. And Irving's foot and knee issues the past two weeks required more from Matthew Dellavedova off the bench, while shifting responsibilities during play.

All that change, against all of Atlanta's stability, is one reason the season series between the teams -- 3-1, favoring the Hawks -- has limited predictive value. Three were played in the season's first two months. Only the last, Atlanta's 106-97 home victory on March 6, bears even a passing resemblance to who the clubs are now.

The Hawks and their fans didn't particularly like the crew that showed up against Washington; Atlanta's effective field-goal percentage was .477 compared to .527 during the year, with an offensive rating of 104.1 vs. the Wizards rather than 108.9 over 82 games. Cleveland obviously is getting work done differently, by different employees.

What has not changed are the objectives. The Cavaliers and the Hawks both are aiming a trip to The Finals and, from there, a championship. Atlanta is bucking a franchise history that hasn't known such ultimate achievement since 1958, when it was based in St. Louis a full decade before shifting southeast. Cleveland, meanwhile, is carrying the hopes of an entire city in search of its first major sports championship since the 1964 NFL Browns. James was all of 22 when he led the Cavs in 2007 to their only previous sip of The Finals (they got swept by San Antonio).

Five quick questions (and answers)

Kyrie Irving

1. What do Kyrie Irving's injuries mean to the All-Star matchup at point guard? At times in the Chicago series, Irving was moving like Fred Sanford reincarnate, his sprained right foot and aching left knee bogging him down as if the hardwood were flypaper. At other times, though, he looked spry enough, scoring 30 points in the opener and 25 in Game 5. Irving hurt still produced more than Jeff Teague healthy, so Teague -- so valuable as the Hawks' trigger man -- along with Dennis Schroder and any helpers would be wise not to fall for the Cavs' point guard playing possum, especially after six days of rest.

2. Who draws the short straw of dealing with LeBron James? We're looking at you, DeMarre Carroll. Even though Carroll has been a helpful offensive outlet for Atlanta, his primary value is as a go-to defender. At 6-foot-8 and 212 pounds, he has the quickness and strength to guard several positions -- for instance, he dealt with Washington's John Wall for much of Game 6 Friday and held down the crafty Wizards playmaker (0.5 points per possession, per SportVU tracking). It will be tough to top the Bulls' Jimmy Butler for individual D on James, but Carroll's "Junkyard Dog" nickname suggests he has a legitimate chance to slow the King.

3. Does Timofey "Mozgov" the Hawks, or vice versa? Last year in the playoffs, Atlanta's floor-spreading attack took away the defensive strengths of Indiana's Roy Hibbert, requiring him to stray far outside his comfort zone and neutering his rim-protecting ways. A key for the Hawks will be their success at rendering Mozgov similarly ineffective. Rather than a steady diet of Mozgov plus Thompson, the Cavs might have to chose one and play small for longer minutes.

4. Which team's bench will matter more? Atlanta has more depth and a more complete arsenal to suit different game situations. Led by Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore, Mike Scott, Pero Antic and Shelvin Mack -- each of whom averaged more than 15 minutes during the season -- its bench is potent, too, scoring 50 points in Game 3 against Washington. Among the Cavs' backups, only J.R. Smith and Matthew Dellavedova have averaged 15 or more, with a bunch of specialists (Mike Miller, Kendrick Perkins, etc.) sitting down at the end. The longer the series goes, the more that favors the Hawks.

5. What should we make of the apparent coaching mismatch, David Blatt vs. Mike Budenholzer? One was the NBA's Coach of the Year, the other gets dissed as maybe not even the best coach of his own team. Budenholzer led Atlanta through an undefeated January, Blatt was fortunate to survive January. The perception is that Budenhozler has his team trained and responding as if he's the ringmaster of the Lipizzaner Stallions, while Cleveland's guy is hanging on to a bucking bronco. We'll give the Hawks an edge here not because Blatt is likely to lose count of the Cavs' timeouts again but because Budenholzer has earned two years' worth of trust from a mature group -- and he's only a phone call away from some Greg Popovich coping-with-LeBron wisdom if needed.

When the Cavs have the ball...

It's not his preference, LeBron James said, to initiate as much offense as he had to against Chicago but that was the reality given Kyrie Irving's injury limitations. Both of them went to pick-and-rolls vs. the Bulls, though James tested Jimmy Butler (with limited success) in isolations. Cleveland got great mileage once it switched to using Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov together in the starting lineup, and that size could be good for multiple offensive rebounds against the Hawks.

Atlanta might need to lean on Pero Antic to counter the Cavs' bigs, though the 6-foot-11 center/forward from Macedonia logged only 80 minutes in the last round vs. Washington. As far as protecting against the 3-point opportunities that James or Irving create when they drive and collapse the defense, the Hawks gave up 34.1 percent shooting on 25.8 3FGAs during the season, compared to 37.5 percent on 22.7 by the Wizards in the just-completed semis.

When the Hawks have the ball...

The Spurs Lite approach installed by Budenholzer these past two seasons is all about ball movement and spacing. As the point guard, Teague sets up the others without worrying first about his own offense, empowering a starting lineup in which all five guys averaged double figures in scoring during the regular season and continue to do so through 12 playoff games. The Hawks don't pound inside; Horford and Millsap are more deadly with their mid-range jump shots when they shake free of opposing bigs. Carroll doesn't have plays run for him but cuts constantly and makes sure his teammates know his whereabouts, while Korver is the Steph Curry of the 3-point catch-and-shoot set.

Cleveland's defense is built from the inside-out these days with Mozgov as a formidable rim protector. He gets help on the glass from Thompson and, by just having those two on the floor, James is freed up to roam, dart into passing lanes and zero in on particular threats as needed. Korver likely will Iman Shumpert's responsibility to chase around and if Irving isn't healthy enough to shadow Teague effectively, the bouncing Aussie Dellavedova might be called on to pester the Hawks' quiet playmaker.

In the clutch

In reality, everyone knows that Cleveland's man in the clutch is James, who will either take on one or two defenders or, if truly swarmed, give up the ball to an open teammate.

The pecking order among them once was Irving, then Love, then J.R. Smith, and that was plenty. But necessity was the mother of greater trust for the Cavs in the last round, so Shumpert, Mozgov or even Dellavedova might wind up with the ball in his hands and the cleanest look.

In reality, everyone knows Atlanta takes a Musketeers approach -- one-for-all, all-for-one -- to its offense, whether early, middle or late. But the first among equals still has to be Kyle Korver, who shot poorly against Washington in the semifinals (.313 overall, and 12-of-42 for .286 on his signature 3-pointers). Hitting or not, Korver demands relentless attention that, in his cuts and curls and perpetual motion, often is beyond the stamina and concentration of many defenders. The semifinals dragged down Korver's career playoff 3FG percentage from .388 to .376, but regression to the mean suggests something ominous for some opponent soon.

Wild cards

J.R. Smith sat out the first two games against Chicago and in the four he did play, he wasn't far from his regular-season averages (12.8 ppg and 6.8 3FGAs vs. the Bulls compared to 12.7 and 7.3 during the season). But we all know Smith isn't about averages; it's his potential to "go off" that makes him so valuable, dangerous and high-risk. Consider his 11-game postseason run with New York two years ago: Smith twice scored 19 points off the Knicks' bench but twice got stuck in single digits. He launched 163 shots for his 157 points that spring. So far, his relative efficiency is up: 77 shots for 90 points, and a true shooting percentage of .568 through two rounds vs. .497 in his previous playoff appearances.

Dennis Shroder brings a swagger and irrepressibility onto the floor for Atlanta, Kent Bazemore offers energy and this team occasionally gets unexpected help from rank-and-file sources such as Shelvin Mack, Mike Scott and Mike Muscala. But it probably is most accurate to say the Hawks don't really roll with an "X" factor in the typical sense. And maybe that becomes their "X" factor, having no one out there for significant minutes who will serve as a focal point for LeBron James, a master at turning the tiniest slights or bit of brashness into motivation.

Prediction

The Hawks are the team sporting four All-Stars, the coach with the pedigree and the Auerbach trophy and the conference's top seed. And yet they claim to be, and see themselves as, underdogs, based on the 12 games they needed to dispatch Brooklyn and Washington and the long shadow of James headed their way. James happens to agree -- he's not clinging to the seeding, because he knows that any team on which he plays lugs expectations loftier than it otherwise might. Unless James himself happens to be the one hurting to the point of suit-wearing, it's assumed he'll lift his team to another Finals and a championship. And frankly, the growth of the Cavs in those six games against Chicago suggests that he and they are good for at least the former. Cavs in 6.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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