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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Cleveland Versus Atlanta Preview

Eastern 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:39 PM

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At Saturday, April 30, 2016 3:27:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Good analysis. I agree with almost all of it (though I think Cleveland will have more trouble with ATL and eventually MIA/TOR than you do, and I still disagree that OKC is a legit contender unless both GSW and SAS are injured (though GSW is, for the moment, so they're halfway there)).

A few more thoughts:

* Millsap has really impressed me since the All-Star break. His offensive game is extremely varied, if not completely reliable, and he's sneakily become probably the best defensive 4 in the league (I count Draymond as a 5). I'm curious to see if and how much ATL tries him on James; if James isn't making his 3s (likely), Millsap might be able to somewhat contain him. Without DMC, I'm not sure who else ATL can really throw at him, and they don't have the kind of big rim protectors that sometimes give him trouble inside.

* If ATL can win the rebound battle, they can win the series. That said, I don't think they can win the rebound battle.

* Kevin Love has nowhere to hide defensively this series, and it'll be interesting to see how ATL attacks him. You are correct that ATL is not better than they were last year, but by dint of having both Love and Kyrie playing "defense" against such a balanced attack, CLE may not be as well suited to playing them as they were last year, either.

* You touched on it, but it bears repeating: Teague must work his ass off against Kyrie on both ends for ATL to have a chance. I think he'll be able to do some damage against Kyrie offensively (heck, I could almost do some damage against Kyrie offensively with Millsap setting the screens), but I'm not as convinced he'll be able to meaningfully contain Kyrie on the other end.

* I think that Cleveland wins, but I think the longer the series goes the more it favors ATL, mostly thanks to the coaching disparity. Lebron & Co would do well to wrap things up in 4 or 5, and they can't afford to give away a game with poor communication or iffy effort.

 
At Friday, May 06, 2016 4:16:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Well, I've been wrong so far in this series (I expected Cleveland to win, but not like that). It'll be interesting to see if Atlanta can make a contest of it at home. Safe to assume CLE won't make 25 3s again, but if ATL can't figure out how to score they won't have to.

 

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