November 10, 2018

Last spring, the Cleveland Cavaliers sent the Atlanta Hawks packing for the summer with a four-game sweep in the Eastern Conference Finals. One year later, Atlanta has an opportunity to exact revenge against the Cavs.

After knocking out the Boston Celtics in a hard-fought first-round series, the Hawks are headed to Cleveland to take on LeBron James and Co. in the conference semifinals. While neither team underwent a dramatic roster overhaul during the offseason, the complexion of this go-round still figures to look far different than last spring’s sweep.

For one, Cleveland will have Kevin Love at its disposal, which wasn’t the case after Kelly Olynyk dislocated his shoulder in its first-round series last year. Kyrie Irving also missed Games 2 and 3 against Atlanta due to left knee tendinitis, while Timofey Mozgov is a shell of the player who averaged 10.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks during their conference finals matchup. One year after the Cavs relied upon a Mozgov-Tristan Thompson frontcourt to sweep the Hawks, the former has all but fallen out of Cleveland’s rotation, perhaps giving Paul Millsap and Al Horford reason for optimism.

The Hawks, meanwhile, will be without DeMarre Carroll, who left Atlanta to join the Toronto Raptors as a free agent last summer, which means Kent Bazemore will draw the primary LeBron-stopping duties. Unlike last year, he’ll have Thabo Sefolosha to back him up, as the 31-year-old has fully recovered from the broken leg he suffered at the hands of the New York City police department. Atlanta will also have a full-strength Kyle Korver in its lineup provided Matthew Dellavedova doesn’t go diving at his legs again, which caused the sharpshooter to miss Games 3 and 4 last season with a sprained right ankle.

The Cavaliers will enter this series as the heavy favorites, particularly after making quick work of a feisty Detroit Pistons squad in the opening round, but Atlanta isn’t conceding defeat just yet.

“I think we are a better team than last year, I really do,” Korver told reporters after the Hawks closed out Boston in Game 6. “I think our identity is more on the defensive end than the offensive end this year. I think we know that we’re gonna have to play really well to beat them.”

Seeing as the Hawks had the second-ranked defense this season, trailing only the San Antonio Spurs, compared to the seventh-best defense last year, there seems to be some merit to Korver’s comments. Atlanta went from blocking to 4.6 shots per game last year, which was just about league-average, to 5.9 this past regular season, tied for the fourth-most among all teams.

To beat Cleveland, that’s where the Hawks’ focus must begin.

Keys to the series

1. Slowing down LeBron James

If James has his way with the Hawks like he did during last year’s conference finals, the result isn’t going to be much different for Atlanta this time around. The four-time MVP averaged 30.3 points (on an eye-popping 26.3 field-goal attempts), 11.0 rebounds, 9.3 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.3 three-pointers in 38.2 minutes per night in their previous matchup, as Love’s season-ending injury and Irving’s limited availability forced him to shoulder more of an offensive burden for Cleveland. As he’s proved time and again throughout his legendary career, James was up for the challenge, single-handedly annihilating Atlanta at times.

Carroll suffering a knee sprain in Game 1 of the conference finals last year certainly didn’t help the Hawks’ cause, nor did being without Sefolosha. Unfortunately for them, only the latter of those two things will be different this time around. Carroll’s absence will loom large over this series, as Cavaliers players shot just 18-of-52 against him in last year’s matchup, 10.1 percentage points below their typical average. Despite being hobbled, the Missouri product still managed to make life difficult for James and Co., which the Hawks will desperately miss this time around.

The key to defeating any James-led team in the playoffs is never allowing him to get comfortable offensively. That often requires opponents to throw multiple defensive looks at him to leave him guessing on a play-to-play basis. Bazemore may be his primary defender and Sefolosha figures to spend some time on him as well, but Millsap, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Mike Scott could likewise tag in for some relief on occasion. If the Cavs do somehow force James into more of a facilitator role, it’ll only ratchet up the pressure on Irving and Love, both of whom are far less familiar with the pressure of the playoff crucible.

2. Can Atlanta’s frontcourt find its way?

Though Korver and Jeff Teague provide complementary support with their shooting and slashing, respectively, Millsap and Horford are the lifeblood of this Hawks squad. During last year’s conference finals, however, Cleveland relegated both into afterthoughts, holding them to a combined 24.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.8 blocks per game. Seeing as the two combined to average 31.9 points, 15.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 2.7 steals and 2.2 blocks per game during the 2014-15 regular season, their drastic downtick in production helped explain why the Cavs were able to sweep Atlanta out of the playoffs last year.

This time around, rather than having to deal with a defensive-minded 7-footer in Mozgov, they’ll get to take advantage of Love’s weaknesses on that end of the court. Millsap, who shot just 34.9 percent overall and 1-of-9 from three-point range during last year’s series, can’t afford to have a similar no-show this year, but drawing Love as a primary defender should help cure what ailed him. After all, opponents shot 3.6 percentage points above their typical average with Love as their primary defender during the regular season.

Horford, meanwhile, was a complete non-factor on the glass last time, pulling down just 19 total rebounds across the four-game series. For the sake of comparison, Thompson and Mozgov gobbled 17 and 13 offensive rebounds alone, respectively. Horford isn’t a DeAndre Jordan-esque force on the glass—he’s averaged just over seven rebounds per game during the past two regular seasons—but getting beaten that soundly on the boards is a recipe for disaster against this Cleveland team.

Seeing as Atlanta finished the regular season with the league’s third-worst rebounding percentage and ranked dead last in offensive rebounding percentage, the battle of the boards figures to be a massive focus for both teams. If Millsap and Horford can’t find their way on offense and struggle to fend off the Cavs’ bigs on the glass, Atlanta could be headed home early once more.

3. The Big Three’s synergy

It’s taken nearly two years, but Cleveland’s Big Three of James, Irving and Love appeared to finally hit their stride during the team’s first-round sweep of Detroit. Irving led the way as a scorer, averaging 27.5 points, 4.8 assists, 4.0 three-pointers and 2.3 rebounds, while Love looked like the board-gobbling menace he was during his Minnesota days, chipping in 18.8 points, 12.0 rebounds and 2.3 treys per night. James, meanwhile, was his typical well-rounded dynamic self, pouring in 22.8 points, 9.0 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.8 steals while setting a strong defensive tone for his teammates.

“We’re in a great flow, as far as us three,” James told reporters after Game 3. “We understand what we all want, we understand what we want individually and what will help the team. Guys are picking their spots. First of all, we’re going to Kev a lot in the post. We want Kev to continue to be aggressive, put pressure on the defense, and we want Kyrie as well to be aggressive on pick-and-rolls and when he’s able to get his shot, we want him to take it.” That same night, Lue said it was “the best I’ve seen them play, all three together.”

As mentioned above, Love missed the entire conference finals last year, while Irving played in just two of the four games, leaving James to do the heavy lifting. This time, he’ll have plenty of help from the both of them. It’s difficult enough to harass James into a poor outing; having to worry about all three stars is a pick-your-poison dilemma with no great answer. Seeing as the trio took 226 of the Cavaliers’ 334 field-goal attempts against the Pistons, Atlanta could be in for a world of hurt if it can’t figure out a way to snap the Big Three’s synergy.

4. The ball-movement battle

Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer, drawing from his days as a San Antonio Spurs assistant, has implemented a passing-heavy attack since taking over in Atlanta three years ago. Over his first three seasons with the club, the Hawks have ranked sixth, fifth and sixth, respectively, in passes made per game. Moving the ball around that much is hardly a guarantee of offensive success—after all, the woeful Philadelphia 76ers ranked third in passes per game this past season—but when executed well, that type of ball movement can help keep defenses off balance.

Atlanta is proof positive of that, having ranked second during the regular season in assists per game (25.6), trailing only the defending-champion Golden State Warriors (28.9). Because the Hawks lack a go-to scorer capable of single-handedly taking over a close game in crunch time, they’re forced to rely upon ball movement rather than isolation to generate open looks. Whereas Atlanta had the sixth-fewest isolation possessions of any team during the regular season (5.6 percent of their total offensive pie), Cleveland had the fifth-most (8.9 percent). James ran the third-most isolation possessions among all players (354), trailing just James Harden (566) and Carmelo Anthony (393), while Irving isolated on 14.3 percent of his possessions.

For Cleveland, it’s imperative to stifle Atlanta’s ball movement by staying active on the perimeter, making it difficult for screeners to free up their teammates. In March, Budenholzer told ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe that more teams were loading up to stop the Hawks’ passing attack, but said “we’re getting so much better at our counters.” Irving, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova and James must keep their heads on a swivel at all times, lest Korver cuts over to the corner for an open three.

Atlanta, meanwhile, can’t allow the Cavs to pick it apart with passes. James is a natural facilitator, but Irving can be hit or miss in that regard, sometimes falling into the trap of narrowing his focus largely to scoring. If the Hawks can force Cleveland into playing one-on-one hero ball, it could give them a fighting chance in this series, as the Cavs averaged just 0.84 points per possession on such plays during the regular season. They reverted into that mode during their Game 4 closeout win over the Pistons—Cleveland head coach Tyronn Lue said it was by design, according to Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com—which perhaps gives Atlanta a blueprint to emulate.

X-factors

Atlanta: Thabo Sefolosha

Sefolosha’s absence during last year’s conference finals loomed large, as it robbed the Hawks of a different defensive look to throw at James. During the 2014-15 regular season, opponents shot just 37.4 percent against the Swiss swingman, 5.5 percentage points below their typical average. With Carroll hobbled by a knee sprain that he suffered in Game 1 of the conference finals, the Hawks desperately missed Sefolosha’s presence against James and Co. last year, particularly since Irving was likewise limited. Had Atlanta been able to stifle James, the complexion of that series could have looked far different for the Love-less, Irving-less Cavs.

With Carroll now in Toronto, Bazemore figures to draw the primary LeBron-stopping responsibilities, but no one man can do that job alone. Stopping James requires a full 48-minute team-wide effort, which is what makes Sefolosha so critical for the Hawks. When Bazemore needs a breather, Sefolosha will be tasked with sliding in and doing everything in his power to slow down the four-time MVP. If he’s unable to replicate his regular-season defensive success—he held opponents to 39.5 percent shooting, 5.1 percentage points below their average—James and the Cavs will make mincemeat of Atlanta.

Sefolosha also occasionally figures to draw the defensive assignment on Irving since he was particularly stingy along the perimeter during the regular season. Foes shot just 28.0 percent from three-point range against him, a whopping 7.2 percentage points below average. Considering Irving went full supernova from beyond the arc against Detroit, the Hawks will need the 31-year-old to stay glued to him like white on rice. If Sefolosha is able to harass James and/or Irving into below-average shooting performances, he’ll give Atlanta a chance to steal at least a game or two.

Cleveland: J.R. Smith

With Love sidelined and Irving hobbled during last year’s conference finals, Smith emerged as the Robin to James’ Batman, averaging 18.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.0 triples during the four-game sweep. He erupted for 28 points on 10-of-16 shooting and eight rebounds in Game 1 and chipped in double-doubles in Game 3 (17 points, 10 rebounds, 3-of-9 from three-point range) and Game 4 (18 points, 10 rebounds, 4-of-10 from three), as he thrived off the defensive attention James drew with his frequent forays into the paint.

During the Cavs’ loss to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, however, Smith badly regressed to the mean, averaging just 11.5 points on 31.2 percent shooting overall and 29.4 percent from downtown to go with 4.3 rebounds and 2.5 triples. He had at least two treys in all but one game against the Dubs, but his 0-of-8 outing from downtown in the series-swinging Game 4 and a 4-of-14 night from deep in Game 5 helped the Warriors gain momentum they would never relinquish.

Smith continued his low-efficiency ways this year, knocking down just 41.5 percent of his shots overall, but he shot a sizzling 40.0 percent from three-point range, the second-highest mark of his career. James, Irving and Love will do the heavy lifting against Atlanta, but they’ll need Smith ready to knock down a few catch-and-shoot threes every game to stretch the Hawks’ defense past its breaking point. The pipe master went 17-of-33 from deep against Detroit in the first round to go with his 13.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, suggesting he’s dialed in heading into this series. An unexpected cold spell could help swing a game or two in Atlanta’s favor, though.

Prediction

Based on how well Cleveland’s Big Three played against Detroit, it’s impossible to pick against the Cavaliers in this series. Despite being without Love for the entirety of last year’s conference finals and only having Irving available for two games, the Cavs still managed to lay waste to Atlanta. Cleveland swept all three regular-season meetings this year, too, winning two by double digits.

The Hawks could well steal a game (or two) against the Cavs if the Big Three falter at any point, but as long as James and Co. stay dialed in defensively, they have the personnel to stifle Atlanta’s offense. Cleveland’s march to the Finals continues.

Cavs in five

All statistics via NBA.com or Basketball-Refererence.com, unless otherwise noted.

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Bryan Toporek

Bryan Toporek is just talkin' about practice. He writes about the NBA at BBALLBREAKDOWN, FanRag Sports and The Step Back. He also helps curate NBAAsesets.com.

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