Neither the Atlanta Hawks nor the Cleveland Cavaliers have been playing all that well in the playoffs. The Hawks haven’t looked nearly like the team that won 60 games in the regular season, struggling at times with the Brooklyn Nets and fighting for their lives against the Washington Wizards. The Cavs have been dealing with injury after injury and with Kevin Love out and Kyrie Irving ailing they can start to resemble the skeleton crews that LeBron James had to deal with in his first stint with the organization. The Eastern Conference Finals feel pretty wide-open, which is pretty much how things have been all season given that neither of the teams appearing in the previous two ECF’s (Heat and Pacers) even made the postseason.
For the Hawks, the win would be a vindication of their dominant regular season as well as the somewhat unorthodox way they built their team. Atlanta has a veteran in the prime of his career at each position on the floor but they don’t have a ball-dominant star who can take over the game on the offensive end of the floor like any of the Cavs Big Three. Both teams want to spread the ball and shoot 3’s, but the Hawks want to do it through pick-and-rolls, ball movement and execution in the halfcourt while the Cavs prefer to hold the ball, win 1-on-1 match-ups and draw double teams. A series this closely contested could come down to the bench units of both teams, neither of which have covered themselves in glory in this postseason.
PG: Jeff Teague vs. Kyrie Irving
Point guard is the only match-up in this series which features All-Star vs. All-Star although both Teague and Irving have been overshadowed by their understudies at times in the playoffs. Irving played only 13 minutes in Game 6 against the Chicago Bulls before being replaced by Matthew Dellavedova due to injury, who exploded for 19 points on 11 shots. Teague has been benched several times for Dennis Schroder, who has shown the ability to run the offense, get into the lane and create shots for his teammates, all of whom depend at times on the PG to spoon feed them the ball. Atlanta needs their PG’s to be playing at a pretty high level to have a chance in this series.
When the two stars are in the game, the key will be which one can play better defense and keep the other out of the lane. Neither is known for their defense and it could be particularly an issue for Kyrie if he’s still struggling with some of the foot and leg ailments that had him playing at half-speed against the Bulls. One of the reasons the Wizards were able to give the Hawks so much trouble in the second round is they had the size and speed at PG (John Wall, Ramon Sessions) to stay in front of Teague and bottle up the Atlanta offense. The Cavs could try to move Kyrie off the ball but that would leave him giving up a lot of inches to either of the Hawks wings and get them going in the series.
If Kyrie can get going and give them a second source of 1-on-1 offense besides LeBron it would do wonders for the Cleveland offense, which wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders against Chicago. LeBron still had his moments against the Bulls but he turned 30 this season and he’s not as capable of taking the whole team on his back and carrying them through multiple series as he was when he was younger. To keep advancing in the playoffs, he needs help from the other max player on the roster, especially with Love out.
SG: Kyle Korver vs. Iman Shumpert
After playing a nearly flawless regular season that got him his first invite to the All-Star Game, Korver has learned the difference between being a secondary player and a featured part of the offense in the postseason. The Wizards were determined to keep him out of the offense and they forced him to put the ball on the floor and take more difficult shots from 3 as opposed to catching and shooting on the perimeter. Korver is still a fairly limited player for an All-Star and Cleveland is likely going to try and take a similar track and force him to beat them a a ball-handler and a passer in this series.
On the other end of the floor, this could be a huge series for Shumpert, who should have an edge in terms of quickness and getting into the lane against Korver. When the Cavs are going small and LeBron is playing at the 4, there should be huge driving lanes for Shumpert, who will likely get the Hawks worst perimeter defender for large stretches of the game. If he can make the three-point shot, force them to close out and then make the right play under pressure, he could serve as a very valuable role as a release valve in the half-court offense.
SF: DeMarre Carroll vs. LeBron James
There’s only so much a guy like Carroll can do against LeBron so you expect he’ll try to follow the path Jimmy Butler took in the 2nd round. As much as possible, you want to stay in front of LeBron and bait him into taking contested jumpers off the dribble. There’s not much you can do if he makes them and you would rather he take those type of shot than get into the paint, finish at the rim, get your big men in foul trouble and involve everyone else in the game. Carroll will have his hands full as the Hawks don’t have a second wing defender they can throw at LeBron without Thabo Sefolosha.
The key for Atlanta is to make LeBron work for his points when he is playing at SF and force the Cavs to go small. If LeBron can score efficiently while sharing the floor with Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson it opens up a lot more options for David Blatt in terms of setting his line-ups and allows Cleveland to attack a smaller Atlanta team on the offensive glass. When Cleveland goes small, Atlanta will ask Paul Millsap to guard LeBron, which will be unusual for a cross-switch in that LeBron is still much bigger than the Hawks PF. If LeBron can get his two primary defenders in foul trouble the Hawks will be in a lot of trouble as they depend on Carroll and Millsap for scoring and they have no one else but Kent Bazemore to throw at him.
PF: Paul Millsap vs. Tristan Thompson
Love’s injury means this is a much different match-up for Millsap, who would have been giving up a lot of inches as he chased Love around the perimeter but could have had the opportunity to exploit him on the other side of the floor. Thompson is longer and more athletic than Love and should be able to push Millsap off his spots around the basket but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to hang with Atlanta’s PF when he faces him up and tries to take him off the dribble.
On defense, Millsap will be able to hang back in the paint and clog up the Cleveland offense, as Thompson can very do little when he’s playing more than a few feet from the basket. The biggest thing will be keeping track of him on the offensive glass, as the Hawks smaller big men struggled with the sheer size of the Wizards in the 2nd round and Thompson is one of the best offensive rebounders in the NBA. In all likelihood, the Cavs will be closing games going small with LeBron at the 4 and Thompson at the 5, which should negate a lot of the speed advantage that Atlanta typically has with their big men.
C: Al Horford vs. Timofey Mozgov
This is the match-up that swung the series for Atlanta in the 2nd round, as Horford grew more and more confident taking the slower Washington big men off the dribble in the pick-and-pop game. Horford is one of the smallest C’s in the NBA but he makes up for it with speed, skill and a great feel for the game. He’s going to be a handful for Mozgov, who isn’t comfortable chasing guys around the perimeter and who can have difficulty getting down in a stance so far away from the basket. Expect Horford to push the ball himself after missed baskets and they are at their best when their C is leading the break, going defense to offense and setting up their guards for transition 3’s.
Horford is the Hawks' best player and the closest thing they have to a star on this roster so they need him to dominate his match-ups against Mozgov and Thompson. For Cleveland, the C position is a lot like the SF spot for Atlanta - if they can play things to a draw they should have a great chance of winning the series. Mozgov has shown flashes of an all-around offensive game and the Cavs are going to need him to step out and knock down a few jumpers as well as make a few hard rolls to the rim and pound the Hawks on the offensive glass.
Key Bench Players
PG: Dennis Schroder
Schroder has really come into his own in the playoffs and the Hawks have found success going small in the backcourt by playing him and Teague together. The difficult part about that with the Cavs is they have so many big wings who can attack the smaller Atlanta guards on defense. Atlanta is going to need their young PG to be playing at his best on both sides of the ball and create easy shots for the more limited players on their 2nd unit. He’s the only reserve they can really count on and he’ll need to have a few huge games to relieve some of the offensive pressure on their starters.
SG: JR Smith
After being suspended for the first two games of the Bulls series, Smith returned to his customary role of hoisting 3’s and providing some offensive firepower off the bench. The Cavs will need him to be locked in on defense because he could have a huge role on the other side of the floor since the Hawks will likely be giving up a lot of size on him. Bench points could play a huge role in this series and that will come down to Smith vs. Schroder, although Bazemore and Dellavedova could have their moments, which says as much about the level of play in the ECF as anything.
Prediction: Atlanta in 7