Cleveland Versus Atlanta PreviewEastern Conference Second Round
#1 Cleveland (57-25) vs. #4 Atlanta (48-34)
Season series: Cleveland, 3-0
Atlanta can win if…Jeff Teague neutralizes Kyrie Irving, the Hawks prevent the Cavaliers from dominating the boards and LeBron James is slowed down by defense by committee (and/or the mysterious malaise that can inexplicably afflict him at any time after the first round of the playoffs). The Hawks are a somewhat puzzling team. They were not as dominant in the 2015-16 regular season as they were in they were in the 2014-15 regular season and they do not have a superstar player but they have a lot of really good players, including current or former All-Stars Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver. Horford struggled in the first round versus Boston, Korver is a great shooter but is not good at creating his own shot, Teague seems to be the team's most important player yet Atlanta advanced despite his .395 field goal shooting versus Boston and Millsap had a bizarre series with four points in one game and then 45 points two games later. All of those players are going to have to be better and more consistent for the Hawks to have a chance against Cleveland.
Cleveland will win because…LeBron James rarely loses playoff series against outmatched teams. The Cavaliers have matchup advantages across the board in this series except for coaching and the center position. Mike "Gregg Popovich, Jr." Budenholzer will coach rings around Tyronn Lue, but the Cavaliers are still better off in that regard now than they were in this round last year when then-assistant coach Lue stopped then-Cleveland Coach David Blatt from calling a timeout that the Cavaliers did not have, which could have resulted in a disastrous technical foul.
Horford should have an advantage against whoever Cleveland plays at center. If any of the games are close enough for strategy and matchup decisions to matter, Budenholzer is going to have the advantage over Lue.
The big questions, as always with the Cavaliers, revolve around James. How will Atlanta guard him and how aggressive will James be? If the Hawks can get away with single coverage on James because James settles for long jumpers, then the Hawks have a chance provided that the quartet of players mentioned above are efficient offensively. If James plays up to his capabilities, the Hawks are obviously in trouble.
Irving was sensational in the first round as Cleveland swept Detroit. He led Cleveland in scoring (27.5 ppg), he shot .471 from the field and he only committed six turnovers.
Kevin Love ranked third on the Cavaliers in scoring versus Detroit (18.8 ppg) and he led the team in rebounding (12.0 rpg) but he shot just .410 from the field and his defense is always questionable.
Other things to consider: Many--if not all--of the teams that had any realistic chance to be competitive against the Cavaliers in a seven game series may be out of the picture soon. Injuries took out the L.A. Clippers and could potentially take out the Golden State Warriors, while the Spurs-Thunder series will eliminate a legit championship contender that is better than any team Cleveland will prior to the NBA Finals. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers are snacking on light Eastern Conference fare. TNT's Charles Barkley mentioned the possibility that Cleveland will not lose a game before the start of the NBA Finals. While that seems unlikely (Cleveland will lose at least one road game in this round and/or the Eastern Conference Finals), Cleveland obviously has a very favorable return path to the NBA Finals.
Timofey Mozgov, a key contributor to Cleveland's playoff run last year, has completely disappeared from Lue's rotation, playing just 14 minutes versus Detroit and not appearing at all in two of the four games. Tristan Thompson, who took over Mozgov's starting center role, averaged 3.8 ppg and 5.5 rpg against Detroit, hurting James' chances of winning Executive of the Year; all sarcasm aside, this is the coaching staff and roster that James handpicked, so the self-proclaimed "Best Player on the Planet" has no valid excuses or complaints if the Cavaliers do not win the championship.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:39 PM