The conference finals got off to a great start last night in Oakland with Golden State’s 110-106 win over Houston. It’s hard not to be excited about these next two weeks, if you’re a basketball fan.
After previewing the West yesterday, it’s time to look at the East. With the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Atlanta Hawks, you’ve got the best player on the planet taking on one of the best groups in the game.
CAVS VS. HAWKS
The thing that makes this series so interesting to me is that each team’s weakness is the other team’s strength.
Atlanta is a really solid all-around team. Each player on that squad is so skilled at doing what they do as a team with spacing, movement, and passing. They’re all talented and unselfish players. Even the big men are talented, mobile, good-passing bigs. That helps out a lot. With that, they do a really good job of playing team basketball to get good shots every possession.
The Hawks offense has a lot of moving parts, and that makes it tougher on any defense. They use ball movement to get open looks. When you have NBA players out there getting open looks and taking good shots, you’re going to make baskets most of the time. They also space the court extremely well, and all of their guys seem to know where the other players on the court are going to be without even having to look for them. That comes from experience playing with each other.
Chemistry is extremely important, and these are guys that have played together for a while. The ability to know and trust that a teammate is going to be in a certain place without thinking about it is invaluable. Not just offensively, but defensively as well. Atlanta is a really solid team defensively. They don’t really gamble at all, and they execute their game plan really well. That’s one of the reasons they are where they are.
There are going to be times throughout the course of a game when everything doesn’t go according to plan. Things break down. It happens. But if you’re out there with players that you’ve been there with before, you don’t have to see what they’re going to do. You know what they’re going to do and how they’re going to react. You know where they’re going to be. That makes the process easier for everybody. It makes you faster as a team, both offensively and defensively.
But what makes the Hawks strong is also what could be their downfall. They’re such a strong team, but their success is the sum of its parts, and the talent on their team isn’t the same caliber as the talent on some of the other teams. I think that’s why they struggled with the Nets and Wizards a bit before they got back on track.
Most teams in the league, especially teams that make the playoffs, have those one or two extraordinary talents to make some plays the Hawks can’t necessarily make. To win games in the playoffs, you need to have somebody you can go to down the stretch and close the game. Maybe in their own team circle, they’ve identified that guy. But from the outside looking in, they don’t have a guy who they know, “This is the guy that we’re going to lean on towards the end of the games.”
Cleveland obviously has that guy in LeBron James, and it’s important to have a closer like that.
For the Cavs, everything begins and ends with LeBron. They leaned on him a bunch in the series against the Bulls with Kevin Love out and Kyrie Irving ailing. He has hit some huge shots, and they’re going to have to continue to lean on him if they expect to win this series. He’s the best player in the world, and they brought him back for this reason.
That’s where the Hawks have a chance to expose the Cavs as well. Atlanta will be able to move the ball on offense and get good shots every single possession. Cleveland doesn’t really have that, so the Hawks can key in on LeBron, and lurk around him on defense to make the Cavaliers really work to get him the ball. That’s the best way to limit his dominance: Deny him the ball, deny him his looks and make somebody else beat you. When he does have the ball, force him into contested jump shots and fade-away jumpers. Don’t give him easy layups or free throws. If they can do that, I think you’re looking at a winnable series for the Hawks.
The Cavs are going to rely heavily on LeBron. There’s no doubt about that, and it could lead to their downfall if Atlanta executes on offense and defense the way they’re capable.
Still, Cleveland does have a few players capable of making that more difficult on the Hawks. Obviously, you start with Kyrie Irving. I could go on and on about Kyrie — his one-on-one ability is pretty special, and so is his ability to finish at the rim. But he’s also not 100 percent healthy, so the Cavs are really going to need other members of the supporting cast to step things up.
At the top of the list is J.R. Smith. He was a huge pickup for them, and depending on Kyrie’s status as the series goes on, he could be the second most important player on Cleveland’s roster.
They really need everybody to contribute and play well around LeBron. But if J.R. can knock down some shots from the three-point line, it gives them another option. With Love down and Kyrie in and out, they were really lacking another offensive option in that Chicago series, but J.R. hit some big threes that allowed them to stay in games. The Cavs’ ability to shoot the three can pick them up if Atlanta is taking LeBron’s game away. If J.R. and some of their other guys step up and hit big time shots, it could decide whether or not they win the series.
Another big factor for Cleveland is the ability to get offensive rebounds and extra shots. Tristan Thompson is a beast in the paint and going to the offensive boards — a dirty-work player and a hustle guy. He doesn’t get credit for very much, but he’s a really solid post player. What he does best is getting extra opportunities for his team by crashing the boards and getting putbacks. You don’t have to run a single play for him, and he can still get you 15 points and 10 boards. If he has a few good games like that throughout the series, they’ll be a lot better off.
On the other side, the Hawks need Jeff Teague to play really well if they’re going to have any shot to knock off the Cavs. As the point guard, he has to be one of those guys they can count on to make a play in those late-game situations. Jeff is from Indianapolis, too, so I’ve seen his game a lot. When he’s on, he can put 30 points on you real quick. He obviously needs to be able to penetrate and get into the paint to make plays for himself and his teammates, but his jumper is going to be the big key. He struggles sometimes as a shooter, but he’s probably going to find himself getting a lot of open looks from deep. He will have to make those big-time threes.
My old teammate Paul Millsap is another guy they really need to step up and hit some open shots. Like Teague, the Cavs are probably going to give Paul some open looks from the outside. If he can knock those down, it opens up all kinds of space for all of them.
But to me, the X-factor is definitely my other former teammate, DeMarre Carroll. He’s going to be asked to guard LeBron, so he’s definitely going to have a tough task on that end. They need his offense as well. When he scores points for them, they’re a lot better. He led them in scoring a few times in the first two rounds, so he’s going to have to make sure he continues to play well and bring energy if they are to have a chance to win.
I’m intrigued by this matchup, and I’m excited to see how it plays out. But if I’m forced to pick, two words make all the difference: LeBron James.
Obviously, the Cavs built the team around three guys, and being without Kevin Love and having Kyrie limited is definitely not ideal. But I think it just means you hand the keys to the best player in the world and let him run the show even more. They’ll need some of the other guys on their team to step up and make shots, because nobody can do it alone. They also have the personnel to be destructive on defense. They get in your face with some great individual defenders, and when LeBron decides to guard defensively, he is maybe the best defender in the game. I think it’s just going to be a matter of how badly they all want it.
Going into this series, the Cavaliers have to feel confident simply because they have LeBron James on their team. You can basically put it all on his shoulders, and even in that scenario, it’s more than winnable.