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Hawks prepared for prickly task of guarding LeBron

Atlanta's wing defenders know chippy play, trash talk could factor into the task of slowing Cleveland's star

POSTED: May 2, 2016 1:56 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Thabo Sefolosha will have the lion's share of work in guarding LeBron James in this series.

— Irritation is inevitable. That's a variation on the old familiarity-breeds-contempt saying as well as a fact of NBA playoff life, when proud and ambitious players spend 48 minutes in the closest proximity possible, vying for the same prize.

Push that to 96, 144, 192 minutes and beyond, and it's surprising more chafing and nastiness between the participants doesn't go on.

Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha of the Atlanta Hawks agreed Monday there probably is no way around it: their time on the court against Cleveland's LeBron James, starting with Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series tonight (7 ET, TNT) is going to get both chatty and chippy.

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"In this league, you're fighting for something and you get tired of seeing the same guy every other night," said Bazemore, the Hawks' starting small forward said after the team's shootaround at Quicken Loans Arena. "So there's definitely a lot of animosity in these series. But it's part of the game, it's part of basketball.

"You're out there playing against an opponent, you're trying to advance, some things may be said. But it's all in the context of the game. It's just guys out there competing."

Said Sefolosha, Atlanta's defensive-minded wing: "We'll see. I'm not much of a trash talker. But especially in a series like this, I know sometimes it gets [physical]. So we'll see. I don't make plans like this ahead of time, but in the heat of the moment, words might get exchanged."

As daunting as the task might be -- offering what resistance one can while giving up an inch or two and 30 to 40 pounds against a postseason-locked-and-loaded James -- it is one Sefolosha will cherish. Compared to a year ago, certainly, when he watched from the side as the Hawks got swept out of the Eastern Conference finals by the Cavaliers.

With Sefolosha out (he underwent surgery on his right leg, including torn ligaments) and DeMarre Carroll, Atlanta's other defensive choice against James, hobbled by a knee injury, the Hawks turned to Bazemore in a trial by fire, heading up a committee approach. Didn't go so well: James averaged 30.3 points, 11.0 rebounds and 9.3 assists.

James was in attack mode because Kevin Love (shoulder) was already out for the playoffs and Kyrie Irving already was limping on a bad knee that would get way worse in The Finals. Their understudies, Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova, averaged a combined 21.3 points against the Hawks.

This spring, Love and Irving are healthy and available. Against Detroit in the first round, they combined for 46.3 ppg.

So Atlanta faces multiple threats, though slowing down James remains job No. 1. Where to start on that?

"Transition. Take away the transition points, fast-break points," Sefolosha said. "He gets the crowd going, he gets his whole team going when he gets in transition, gets dunks. But that's a group effort.

"As far as matching up against him, you have to try to have a feel for what type of night he's having. Some nights he's shooting better than others. Some nights he wants to drive more than others. Try to have a feel for that and take away the easy baskets."

There seems to be more archival footage and accounts of Sefolosha struggling against James than there is of him locking James down (such as here and here). So it goes with Hall of Fame-bound foes.

Sefolosha's encounters with James date back November 2006 when he was a rookie with the Chicago Bulls. In 23 regular-season meetings, James' teams in Cleveland and Miami have gone 14-9 against Sefolosha and the Bulls, Thunder or Hawks. In the 2012 Finals when Sefolosha was an OKC starter, James' Heat won 4-1.

James' stats in games when Sefolosha guarded him at least part of the time look pretty similar to the numbers he posted in the East finals last spring. In regular season games, James averages 30.2 ppg, 8.0 rpg and 6.2 apg, while shooting 51.9 percent overall and 40.9 percent from the arc. In that Finals clash, James averaged 28.6, 10.2 and 7.4 on 47.2 percent shooting against Sefolosha.

Offense hasn't been a priority for Sefolosha in the matchups. He has averaged 4.3 points on 35 percent shooting in the regular-season games and 4.6 points on 29.6 percent shooting in the 2012 Finals.

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

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