January 20, 2018

LeBron James’s homecoming meant the Cleveland Cavaliers were largely considered the favorites before the season in what was a muddied Eastern Conference landscape. But James’s early season fatigue and holes in the rotation yielded a highly disappointing start for Cleveland that allowed Mike Budenholzer and the Atlanta Hawks to claim the top seed in the conference, a position they locked up for good this weekend.

As James, Kyrie Irving, new acquisition Timofey Mozgov and company come together as a legit force, it seems once again that a resurgent Cleveland team is being tapped for the NBA Finals. Regardless, overlooking the Hawks would be a great mistake, as they’ve clearly been the East’s premier team this season.

Coach Budenholzer undoubtedly learned the value of rested players while he was an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs for 14 years between 1999 and 2013. After cruising to a huge mid-season conference lead, the Hawks have carefully managed the minutes of their key contributors. Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver lead the team at around only 33 minutes a night, and every starter has missed from four to 11 games for rest or minor injuries. Since the All-Star Break, Dennis Schroder and Kent Bazemore have actually played more minutes than Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver. Furthermore, Atlanta hasn’t advanced past the first round since 2011, limiting the miles on its players even more. The Hawks will therefore be ready to go full throttle when the playoffs begin.

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The Cavs, on the other hand, have played their starters bigger minutes. Both Irving and James sit in the NBA’s top four at over 36 minutes per game. Even the much-maligned Kevin Love is averaging over 34 minutes, good for 27th in the NBA. Even by the standard of total minutes – a better measure for James in particular, given his absence earlier in the season – David Blatt has a bit of a Tom Thibodeau shine, with all three of his max contract players (yes, Coach, Kevin Love is one) in the top 23 for the league. This is especially disconcerting for James (23rd), who will be entering presumably his fifth straight extended season, and Love (17th), who is still battling painful back spasms.

The time has come and gone for Blatt to properly reduce his star’s workloads, and only time will tell if LeBron can buck the trend and make a fifth straight Finals appearance. As Cleveland advances deeper into the postseason, James’s energy level will be the deciding factor in their ultimate success; the Hawks rotation could not be more rested overall.

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While LeBron is the only starter on either team to play in the Finals, the Hawks still have the more experienced postseason squad. Jeff Teague cut his NBA teeth when he took it to Derrick Rose and the Bulls in 2011, a Conference Finals series that Kyle Korver was also a part of. Likewise, Al Horford has seen plenty of playoff action in his career, although injuries have forced him to miss several games or be limited. A healthy and experienced Horford is a dangerous weapon, especially alongside Paul Millsap, who averaged a double-double in last year’s seven game defeat to the Indiana Pacers.

Contrastly, very few of Cleveland’s rotation players have much playoff experience, if at all. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have famously never participated:

J.R. Smith struggled so badly in his last trip to the postseason that Scoop Jackson seriously speculated if Smith’s basketball fate was in God’s hands. Timofey Mozgov has a scant 70 minutes of playoff ball under his belt, while Tristan Thompson has also never made the late season trip. Simply put, outside of James, the Cavaliers have a plethora of key rotation players who haven’t yet proven themselves in playoff action.

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It would be foolish to worry incessantly about Kyrie Irving’s production, but rotations shorten in the playoffs and the defenses tighten up. Intelligent opponents plan meticulously for every little idiosyncrasy, waiting to pounce on tips they’ve gleaned from hours of video preparation. When everything slows down under the big lights, Irving must find a way to penetrate and convert that doesn’t rely solely on his natural abilities. Compounding this is the Hawks’ ability to limit fastbreak points, an area where James and Irving excel; Atlanta allow just 11.3 fastbreak points per game, fourth best in the NBA per NBA.com/stats. Atlanta’s tenacity at forcing offenses where they want them to go within the half court offense will be a key factor in this potential playoff match-up.

Furthermore, as much as David Blatt wants to argue otherwise, he’s still an NBA coaching rookie. Blatt has established himself as a capable coach after he almost paid the price for his team’s injuries and poor roster construction early in the season, but coaching in the playoffs is a whole different beast.

Often, the closest match-ups can be decided by which top-level coach makes the best adjustments. Rick Carlisle and the Dallas Mavericks famously used pseudo-zones to trip up LeBron and the Heat in 2011. Running a heavy isolation offense, it took then-young coach Erik Spoelstra a year of failure on the biggest stage to realize the beauty of designing an offense around James instead of shoehorning him into a standard one. Irving and Love are more logical fits for James’s game than Dwyane Wade was initially, but David Blatt is still using more of a traditional system than anything tailored to his individual talent: just ask “not a stretch four” Kevin Love.

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The Hawks will “ice” everything possible toward the sidelines and try and force opponents into mid-range shots with relentless positioning and maneuvering. The Cavaliers have a tendency to go isolation heavy in the half-court, playing into what Atlanta’s defense wants. If the Hawks can turn Cleveland’s offense into “you go, I go” with LeBron and Kyrie, it will be very difficult for Cleveland to score efficiently.

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Blatt can give Atlanta’s system difficulty by moving Love around the floor more and committing to getting him occasional post touches. However, Love has almost entirely been relegated to three-point duty, a decision that would put far less pressure on Paul Millsap and Al Horford to contain Love. Blatt’s offensive creativity in using Love differently will be a key for Cleveland, and he hasn’t quite proven an ability to innovate on the fly at the highest levels.

While Mike Budenholzer is only a second year coach himself, he spent years assisting Gregg Popovich on the Spurs sideline, experience that one could argue is more valuable than what Blatt gained coaching in Europe, given its pertinence to the much different NBA game. Further, Coach Budz showed excellent tact in re-configuring last season’s post-Horford team around high volume long-range shooting. The Hawks came extremely close to taking down the top-seeded Pacers out of the eight spot last season for this reason, even without Horford, or being nearly as good of a unit as they are now.

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This season, that creativity has come in the form of a healthy roster and a historic shooting season from All-Star Kyle Korver. With Horford back manning the paint and absolutely slaying from mid-range, the Hawks have built a deadly offensive system. BBALLBREAKDOWN colleague Ben Dowsett did a great job breaking down how Atlanta’s offense runs earlier this season. With a talented starting lineup but no true “superstar”, the Hawks offense relies on ball movement, pick-and-rolls and clever misdirection – very much like the Spurs. Korver draws the primary attention running circles around the halfcourt, but he also sets sneaky screens and fakes common actions to wreak havoc on the defense.

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Millsap and breakout star Teague have been deadly running pick-and-rolls together, while Horford remains lethal anywhere inside the arc. Add in the almost unbelievable basketball gravity that Korver’s shooting demands, and a plethora of open looks are yielded to the Hawks. Without Korver, that system is a hell of a lot less dynamic. In the 2,193 minutes Korver has played, the Hawks have outscored opponents by 9.9 points per 100 possessions, the best figure on the team. When he sits, Atlanta somehow gets outscored 2.6 points per 100 possessions, a significant margin. Without the attention Korver’s shooting draws, Atlanta’s offense becomes far more pedestrian. Time off for a broken nose, as well as some planned rest, means that Korver should be all systems go for the playoffs, a scary thought for Atlanta’s opponents.

Although Cleveland’s defense has improved astronomically since the early season, it still sits below average at 11th worst in the NBA (104 points per 100 possessions). Only the fading Toronto Raptors have a worse defensive rating among playoff teams. However, since the All-Star break, Timofey Mozgov and a healthy LeBron have helped lead the Cavs to a far better defensive rating of 101, including just 97.2 when Mozgov plays, per NBA.com/stats. Interestingly, since the break, the Cavs have been better overall and significantly on defense with Kyrie out of the game. This is likely because of the immense defensive potential the Cavs have when they can play James, Shumpert and J.R. Smith together without a point guard defending. Irving is clearly still the Cavs second most important player, but Teague can and will roast him in the pick-and-roll. It will be interesting to keep track of Blatt’s rotations as he tries to adjust to Atlanta’s scheming.

While LeBron and the Cavaliers are undoubtedly good enough to take down the Hawks, I find it hard to pick against Atlanta and its homecourt advantage. Cleveland’s starters figure to be more fatigued than Atlanta’s, while the Hawks also seem to hold a not insignificant advantage at coach. Budenholzer’s motion offense will pick apart the weak spots in the Cavs’ defense, while LeBron and Kyrie’s tendency to isolate often could play right into the Hawks’ defensive gameplan. If these teams match up in the Conference Finals, the world’s greatest basketball player may find himself the underdog for once.

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Jake Weiner

Jake Weiner is a Chicagoan and a graduate of Vanderbilt University. He spends much of his free time breaking down and enjoying the NBA. In addition to contributing at BBALLBREAKDOWN, Jake also writes for Today's Fastbreak and co-founded and manages DRosesAndThorns.com. You can follow him on Twitter @JakeWeinerNBA.

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