The Cleveland Cavaliers are set to take on the Atlanta Hawks in the second round. The two teams, of course, met in last year's playoffs with the Cavs sweeping the Hawks. Atlanta, though, is a different team than last year and are coming off a series win against the Boston Celtics.
To get the lowdown on these Hawks, we asked Brad Rowland of Peachtree Hoops, SB Nation's Hawks blog, to answer some questions about the team he covers. Check out his answers below and make sure to follow him on Twitter at @BTRowland.
1. If you're the Hawks, what's your game plan for stopping LeBron James?
Other than the stock answer of prayer, this is (obviously) the biggest concern for Atlanta. LeBron is a bad match-up for everyone in the NBA, but that is doubly true for the Hawks, as Atlanta has particular trouble in defending big, dominant wing players, of which James is the best possible example. Mike Budenholzer has largely been unable to contain LeBron in the recent past, and that was certainly true in last year's playoff match-up. There are no "good" options, but my favorite is deploying Paul Millsap on LeBron to start games.
Millsap was a would-be All-Defensive team performer this year, and he is the only player on Atlanta's roster with the combination of bulk and length to even contend with LeBron all over the floor. Deploying Millsap on LeBron forces other issues, including a likely match-up with Kyle Korver covering Kevin Love, but it is "pick your poison" time. In general, the Hawks will be looking to force LeBron into settling for jump shots, and in sharp contrast to their defensive gameplan against the Celtics in the opening round, Atlanta will be trying to take away 3-point shooting after watching a seemingly endless stream of JR Smith threes a year ago.
Yeah, maybe prayer is just the best answer.
2. Who presents a bigger danger to the Hawks: Kevin Love or Kyrie Irving?
I would say Irving. Atlanta's mobile big men should help greatly in deterring Love, even if he is probably going to be able to get off jumpers throughout the series. Though it is obviously a declining part of his game, Love could (at least in theory) be a big issue for the Hawks on the offensive glass, but that is basically a problem for any opponent given the team's defensive rebounding issues throughout the year.
As for Irving, we've seen point guards with creative skills and the ability to shoot give the Hawks problems in the recent past. Budenholzer was able to adjust to the heroics of Isaiah Thomas in the opening round, but the Celtics have a glaring absence when it comes to not having LeBron James on the roster, and if Irving is simply matched one-on-one with Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder (as expected), Hawks fans shouldn't enjoy that match-up. Maybe this is a product of Irving's 35-point showing a couple weeks ago against Atlanta in the regular season finale between the two teams, but he scares me to death.
3. Finish this sentence: the most dangerous thing about the Hawks for the Cavs is...
If the Hawks remember how to shoot. Atlanta's offense is absolutely going to create open looks, and this series would be a lot more fun if they went through the basket at a reasonable rate. Much has been made of this particular team having shooting struggles at the worst possible time (last year's playoffs, for instance), but if the likes of Kyle Korver, Kent Bazemore, Jeff Teague and even Al Horford and Paul Millsap are connecting from deep, things get interesting because the looks will be there.
4. True or False: this series will be more competitive this year than it was last year?
True, if only because I don't believe it will be a sweep. There were (at least) two competitive games in last year's series, but in general, it was a fairly dominant performance from the Cavs and everyone that reads your site with regularity will surely remember that. Atlanta's defense is significantly better this year, which helps a great deal, and this team has actually peaked at an optimal time, entering this series playing some of their best basketball instead of that level being three months in the rearview mirror.
Maybe it's wishful thinking, but there are a number of areas in which the Hawks are simply functioning better right now than they were at this time a year ago. Even if they didn't win 60 games in 2015-2016.
5. How is this Hawks team different from last year's version?
Defense, defense, defense. We've discussed it in passing during this exchange, but Atlanta is really, really good on that end of the floor this year. The Hawks held the league's best defensive rating (yes, even ahead of the Spurs) after the calendar flipped to 2016, allowing only 97.4 points per 100 possessions in the final 48 regular season games, and that has continued into the playoffs. Atlanta held Boston to just 91.3 points per 100, and while that was certainly buoyed by poor shooting from the Celtics, there was no question that the Hawks performed well on that end.
In a match-up specific discussion, the Hawks are better suited to deter LeBron this year. DeMarre Carroll famously suffered a knee sprain in Game 1 of last season's series, and he was quite obviously never the same again. This year, Carroll is gone, but the Hawks have Thabo Sefolosha (who I would argue is a better defender than Carroll) and, as mentioned previously, Paul Millsap might just be the best option on LeBron anyway. That was a wrinkle that Budenholzer went to out of desperation in 2015, but this time around, he will have time to prepare Millsap to play it, and the team has been playing small ball for the duration of the campaign, leaving the All-Star power forward in a better place if he is asked to take that primary assignment.
6. What's your series pick?
Cavs in 6.
This might get me in trouble at home, but I would be pretty shocked if the Hawks won this series. That isn't a bold opinion given the presence of a LeBron James-led team with homecourt advantage on the other side, but I do believe that Atlanta is well-prepared to put up a fight. Getting a split in the first two games would be huge for the Hawks in lengthening this series, though, and if they fail to do that, things could get ugly again as the ball begins to roll downhill. Cavaliers fans shouldn't be terribly worried about failing to advance in my view, but something tells me it won't be a cruise control performance, either.