Hawks vs. Cavs Preview
*Photo via AP
With Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals set to start Wednesday night, there
are plenty of questions to be asked. Some of these questions revolve around health,
while others suggest potential lineup adjustments. Regardless, with the top two
teams in the conference battling it out over a stretch of almost two weeks,
basketball fans everywhere are in for a treat.
The Cleveland Starters
As far as we know, Kyrie Irving is going to play and start Game 1. He hasn’t practiced
since Game 6 of the series with the Chicago Bulls, but that has been explained as rest
so that he can be as useful as possible for this upcoming battle with the Atlanta
Hawks. If Irving is able to start and play significant minutes, it will be interesting to
see who he will be guarding on the defensive end.
With his counterpart, Jeff Teague, being one of the quickest point guards in the
league, it begs to ask the question of how long Irving will be given that assignment
before a player like Iman Shumpert must step in for some relief. If Irving is taken off
of Teague and forced to defend another Hawks player, it will likely be the 6-foot-8,
212 pound DeMarre Carroll, as he is the only option other than Kyle Korver. Chasing
Korver around through screens all game would only put more physical stress on
Aside from Irving, the other four Cleveland starters are relatively healthy. LeBron
James, the best player on the planet, will always have an advantage no matter who
he is going up against (likely DeMarre Carroll). Although coming off of a very poor
shooting performance, at least from an efficiency standpoint in the Bulls series, it is
expected that James will regain his touch while being the most dominant player on
As far as the bigs for the Cavaliers’ starters, both Tristan Thompson and Timofey
Mozgov should have their way in terms of rebounding as the Hawks play two
undersized bigs. However, an advantage in one area is often times compromised by
a weakness in another. In this case, the Cavaliers’ bigs may be dragged out of their
comfort zone with the floor-stretching offense of this Atlanta team. This may lead to
worse rim protection and more ball penetration, leading to open shots.
The last starter for the Cavaliers is Shumpert, who by all accounts may be playing
the best basketball of his professional career. Defensively, he is one of the top
perimeter players on the Cavs, but it’s what he is giving them on the offensive end
that is making him all the more valuable.
Since being inserted into the starting lineup for Game 1 of the series with the Bulls,
Shumpert is averaging almost 13 points per game compared to the 8 points per
game that he averaged throughout the regular season. His extra scoring along with
his defense can prove to be of great value to this Cavaliers team, and they need him
to be on top of his game if they want a shot at either the Golden State Warriors or
Houston Rockets in the NBA finals.
The Atlanta Starters
The five starters for the Hawks include four Eastern Conference All-Stars in Teague,
Paul Millsap, Al Horford and Korver, with their fifth starter being Carroll. As far as
the point guard matchup goes, if Irving is not close to being 100 percent, then
Teague should be able to exploit him with his speed and quickness enough to cause
Cleveland to make some adjustments.
A key for the Hawks, though, is the play of Kyle Korver. Widely regarded as a top
three-point shooter in this league, he will play a key cog in the Hawks’ offense. He
will most likely start off the game being guarded by Shumpert and must work his
way through screens and move without the ball in order to find room to get open
looks. If Korver has a good series shooting the ball, the Hawks have some hope to
upset the James-driven Cavaliers, as his shooting opens everything up for this
Another important matchup that will have a major impact on this series will be
Carroll versus James. Carroll’s ability to stop, or rather slow down James may decide
the series. Carroll has the ability to match up with James size wise, and his gritty
hard-nosed defense should cause problems for James, who is coming off of a series
in which he managed to turn the ball over at least six times in three separate games.
If Carroll can limit James’ effectiveness and efficiency as a scorer and turn him into a
volume shooter rather than an efficient playmaker, he will have done his job. Any
offense from Carroll after being tasked with the impossible-to-guard James is a
Lastly, the two bigs for the Hawks should have a very big impact on their offense.
Defensively they are going to give up some offense rebounds due to them being
undersized, but offensively is where they can force the hand of Cleveland’s coach
David Blatt. It is unlikely that Cleveland is going to be able to play both of their
starting bigs together for extended periods of time due to the floor-stretching style
of offense that Atlanta plays. Taking out two terrific rebounders along with their
ability to protect the rim on the defensive end is important for the quick and
undersized Hawks team.
With the insertion of Shumpert into the starting lineup, that means that instant
offense and former Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith will be coming off of the bench.
The never-scared-to-shoot Smith played a large role in Cleveland’s series victory
against the Bulls, where he shot above his season average from three point land.
The other most used player off of the Cleveland bench is Australian Matthew
Dellavedova. The backup point guard received the game ball after the game in which
Cleveland eliminated Chicago for his excellent play on both the offensive and
defensive end of the floor. He was the Cavs’ leading scorer and made life difficult for
former MVP Derrick Rose on the defensive end. Look for Dellavedova to receive
many minutes guarding Atlanta’s quick point guards Teague and Dennis Schroeder.
The rest of Cleveland’s bench consists mainly of step-in shooters like James Jones
and Mike Miller. However, it’s more likely than not that Cleveland will run mostly a
seven to eight man rotation only featuring a couple of bench players.
The Atlanta bench is far deeper than that of Cleveland. They have the energetic
players in Kent Bazemore, Mike Scott and Schroeder who push the pace offensively
and are quick and active on the defensive end. They also have big-man Pero Antic
who can be used in order to body up against the bigs of Cleveland if one of the two
starting Hawks bigs get into any foul trouble. Atlanta will run a slightly longer
rotation extending out to eight or nine guys. This is crucial and provides rest for
their starters in what may turn out to be a long series that might go the distance.
Is this finally going to be the series where David Blatt is going to be exposed for his
lack of coaching experience in the NBA? After almost costing his team Game 4 and
ultimately the series against the Bulls because he wasn’t aware of the timeout count,
he has managed to still guide his team into the Eastern Conference Finals. In this
series more than ever he will have to make quick adjustments, as he is going up
against a very good offensive team in the Hawks.
Blatt is also going up against Coach Mike Budenholzer of the Hawks, who is fresh off
of winning the annual Coach of the Year award. Budenholzer, a descendant of Greg
Popovich, has instilled the great ball movement into his offense and could very well
expose this, at times, vulnerable Cavaliers defense. Also, Budenholzer’s ascendant
Popovich just might be the best we have ever seen when it comes to slowing down
King James. It will be interesting to see how he elects to do so, and his ability to
control his team and ultimately the pace of the game.
Although Atlanta came into these playoffs with a better record than the Cavaliers, no
team with James should ever be considered an underdog. His ability to facilitate,
score, defend and lead his team should never be underappreciated. With Cleveland
figuring out how to play without Kevin Love over the past series and gaining
confidence and belief, it is going to take a very good Atlanta team playing nearly
perfect to beat them.
Atlanta should be able to win a couple of home games, but I think that’s it. I think
that James will return to his fifth consecutive NBA Finals to await the challenge of
either Golden State or Houston.
Cavaliers in six games.