Hawks' D vs. Cavs' O: Which Has The Upper Hand?

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This one has all the makings of a heavyweight fight.

In one corner you have the Cleveland Cavaliers' offense led by LeBron James. James, ever a dominant offensive force, led the NBA in points scored in the paint: 14.0 per game. His drives to the hoop are the engine that makes them go, and the Cavaliers take advantage by surrounding him with a bevy of shooters. Cleveland made 880 three-point shots this season, which ranks as the second-best total in the NBA and the fifth-best of all time. 

In the opposite corner, you have the Atlanta Hawks' defense, which held opponents to a league-low 43.2 percent shooting from the field. Led by two strong, savvy and mobile interior defenders, Paul Millsap and Al Horford, the Hawks were the only NBA team that finished in the top 5 in both steals (3rd) and blocks (5th). Those weren't empty stats either: the Hawks finished second in defensive rating, allowing opponents just 98.8 points per 100 possessions. Clearly, Atlanta takes pride in its defense.

"When we watch film, it's 80 percent how we can be better defensively," Horford said.

Both teams upheld their reputations in the first round of the playoff. Cleveland swept Detroit and made 41.3 percent of their three-point shots. Atlanta blocked 8.7 shots per game and held Boston to 38.7 percent shooting overall.

So what do the Hawks want to do when these two teams meet? Millsap summed up the strategy.

"I think we go for the head of the snake now, which is LeBron, make it tough on him," Millsap said. "Get out to the shooters, when possible, and make it tough all around."

The series is going to have a different feel from last year, in part because the starters are different. Kevin Love is healthy, and the Cavaliers have moved Timofey Mozgov out of the starting lineup (he played just 14 minutes total in the Detroit series) in favor of Tristan Thompson. That leaves the matchups as:

Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love 
Hawks: Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Kent Bazemore, Paul Millsap and Al Horford

There shouldn't be much cross-matching here. Irving and Teague will guard each other, as will Smith and Korver. The one exception is that Love will probably guard Horford on one end while being guarded by Millsap on the other. It's this cross-match that creates what may be the pivotal matchup of the series: Thompson being guarded by Horford.

Thompson is a multi-talented player. He's a relentless offensive rebounder, he has good touch close to the basket, and the Cavs need him in the game to defend the rim on the other end of the court. But Thompson took almost all of his shots in the paint this season. Horford will likely be the one Hawk with a chance to help near the rim while the other Cavaliers, like Smith, Love, Channing Frye and Matthew Dellavedova, stretch defenders all over the place.

"Give credit to Boston, but (Cleveland's) shooting compared to Boston's is like night and day," Bazemore said. "They have a ton of guys who can fill it up from the outside."

One of the strengths of the Atlanta defense is its flexibility to play a number of styles, but here is a peek at some of the ways that they may use Horford over the next two weeks. And as Bazemore hints, it might not be the daring, trapping scheme that the Hawks used against Boston.

Let's take a look at some examples from the most recent Cavs-Hawks game. In this first play, James uses a pick in the corner to drive baseline while Horford guards Thompson on the opposite side.

Horford lingers close enough to the play to cut off James. Even after James finds Thompson open at the rim with a solid pass, Horford is still right there to recover and block the shot. 

The tricky part is that when Horford helps, he needs other Hawks to chip in and do everything they can to box out Thompson, a good offensive rebounder. The Cavaliers can also make things hairy by having Thompson set screens all over the place. 

Here is a pick-and-roll play where Thompson tries to free Irving of Teague's defense. But Teague fights valiantly over the top of the screen – not once, but twice – to discourage Irving from launching a three-point shot. Horford is the real key, though. He sags back toward the rim waiting to clean up whatever comes his way. This version of the Hawks defense is essentially conceding a long two-point shot to Irving while economically defending the pick and roll with just two players. By not bringing in a help defender, the Hawks are also not opening up any three-point shooters.

(The ball doesn't make it's way to the rim on this play. On the plays where it does get there, Horford's progression from very good rim defender to shot-blocking, verticality-using basketball ninja is going to help immensely.)

In this next play, Irving uses a double screen from Thompson and Frye. Of the three plays clipped here, this one is probably the toughest for the Hawks to defend, partly because it happens in delayed transition and partly because after Irving darts behind the picks. Thompson and Frye (who is an excellent shooter) criss cross like a pair of tight ends running routes on a football field.

Teague, who is guarding Dellavedova, drops down to help contain Irving's penetration. Bazemore chases the play over the top and Millsap tries to cut Irving off as well. With three players focused on the ball, Dellavedova has lots of time for an easy pass to Frye. Frye misses the shot, but he had a quality look at the shot because the Cavs lured in help defenders.

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The Hawks aren't going to stick entirely to one defensive scheme or look. Bazemore will get the lion's share of time guarding James, but Thabo Sefolosha, Millsap and Horford will take turns guarding him too. Teague will start on Irving, but Sefolosha and Dennis Schröder will try to limit him too. Regardless of the matchups and regardless of how the Hawks vary things to keep Cleveland off balance, they will need to defend penetration with as few players as possible so as to minimize open shooters. 

"Everything starts with taking away the paint, taking away the basket," Head Coach Mike Budenholzer said. "We've got to do a great job of trying to keep them in front of us. I think our guys understand how important that is. We've got to guard the ball well initially, we've got to guard the pick-and-rolls well initially, and then we've got to have everybody participate with rebounding." 

It's a task easier said than done, but let the bout begin.

Story by KL Chouinard
Twitter: @KLChouinard