The Cleveland Cavaliers take on the Atlanta Hawks tonight and it figures to be interesting. The teams are 1-1 against each other this season and both reside in the upper half of the Eastern Conference.
The Cavs also come into his game having been blown out by the Detroit Pistons on Sunday and David Blatt is facing scrutiny after the loss; an ESPN report alleged he has lost the locker room. Fun times abound, obviously.
Who: Cleveland Cavaliers at Atlanta Hawks
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Phillips Arena - Atlanta, Georgia
TV: NBA TV
Music: Candler Road - Childish Gambino.
This is the third meeting between these two teams. Oddly enough, both teams have a blowout win against the other team on the road. And, generally speaking, there is a very simple reason for this: The winning team in both games shot above 50 percent from the field and and finished shooting 50 percent from 3-point range. In the Cavs' win on Nov. 15, Cleveland shot 54.4 percent from the field and 61.3 percent on threes. In the Hawks' win on Dec. 17, Atlanta shot 64.5 from the field and 57.1 percent from the field.
That isn't likely to happen again. Both of these teams are talented offensively and score in the variety of ways, although the Cavs haven't exactly shown that consistently. The Cavs remain fourth in the league in offense rating at 110.8, while the Hawks are 11th in offense rating in 110.8.
The difference between the two teams, however, is that the Hawks are a top-10 defense and the Cavs are somewhere in the bottom third of the league. This favors the Hawks and could mean the Cavs are likely going to need to turn this into a shootout in order to have a chance to win this game.
Kyrie Irving might be important to the Cavs' offense. Irving will play against the Hawks after missing two games with a left knee contusion and this is important for the Cavaliers. LeBron James is the Cavs' primary creator, sure, but Irving plays a really important role as a hybrid creator/scorer off LeBron. Irving is having a really nice offensive season, and is a huge reason why the Cavs are as a good offensively as they are. In fact, the top eight lineups featuring Irving score over 100 points per 100 possessions.
Irving also creates space for everyone else on the floor to operate. Without Irving on the floor, teams can focus a large part of their permitter defense on James, rotate off to Mike Miller/Dion Waiters when the situation calls for it and force the Cavs to swing the ball to Matthew Dellavedova. With Irving on the floor, teams have to focus on two players who can create and that can become three if Waiters is on the floor.
Without Irving, the Cavs are much easier to guard. There is no way around that.
This game is important within the Eastern Conference hierarchy. Coming into this game, the Cavs are fifth in the East and four games behind the second place Hawks. Atlanta, at 22-8, is just 1.5 games back the first-place Toronto Raptors. And after today, the Cavs and Hawks won't meet until March 6 in Cleveland.
The Cavs, as it stands, are the odd team out of the East's top-five. Yes, it's only been 30 games and the Cavs are right there behind the Bulls in the Central Division. But it is entirely plausible that the Cavs won't win their division and will need to make the top-four in order to land home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. With the Raptors likely winning the Atlantic Division, that means the Cavs are competing directly with the Hawks and Washington Wizards for positioning.
As a division winner, either the Hawks or Wizards are guaranteed a top-four spot. The other, however, is a team the Cavs are competing directly with and may even play in the first round of the playoffs.
Fear The Sword's Fearless Prediction Irving undoubtably makes the Cavs better, but the Hawks are arguably the best team in the NBA right now. Barring a bizarre 30-point loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Dec. 26, Atlanta only lost once in Dec. and that was on the road on the second part of a home-and-home series with the Orlando Magic. This game should be close, but Atlanta has the advantage at home. Hawks 102, Cavs 97.