The Cavaliers Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Hawks tips off Monday, and not many are giving the gang from the Atlanta much of a chance. Tristan Thompson's ability to match up well against Paul Millsap while eating on the offensive glass has been well documented, as has Atlanta's inability to transfer their three-point barrages to the postseason thus far.
That said, the real issue for the Hawks is that they have a LeBron James problem, and there might not be a solution.
James averaged 27.3 points, 7.7 assists and 11 rebounds on 33-57 shooting from the field in the Cavs three wins against the Hawks this season, but it wasn't for a lack of variety in the looks the Hawks threw him. Unfortunately, a big issue for them is that they don't really have the personnel.
That's not to say the Hawks don't have good defenders. That's an insane statement to make. The team finished with the second-best defense in the NBA, Paul Millsap was a revelation for them, Al Horford plays great team defense, and they've got two pesky wing defenders in Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore.
Bazemore and Sefolosha, in particular, are very useful against most teams. They harass you on the ball, they have quick hands, and play with tremendous effort, though Bazemore's reputation as a stopper is pretty overstated, as he's only in the 13th percentile as an isolation defender (hat tip to Trevor Magnotti for that snippet). That said, they are very competent on the perimeter, and all you have to do is look at how they ruined the Celtics offense as a team to know that they can get the job done against most teams.
Stopping LeBron has got to be high priority for the Hawks, and Brad Rowland of Peachtree Hoops weighed in on how they might stop James.
The Hawks have been a little too happy to switch pick and rolls involving James as the screener or the ball handler, and LeBron has just roasted smaller guards in those situations:
This was especially true when the Hawks switched and Teague ended up having to guard LeBron one on one.
LeBron often immediately posts and he either gets an easy bucket, a flop from the defender, or a trap, which he can expertly pass out of to one of the many willing shooters on the floor.
This is something the Hawks should cut out almost entirely. The Pistons were far too happy to do this, and it got their defense out of whack with very little upside. LeBron has a penchant for sort of walking into his screens as opposed to using them aggressively, and Atlanta can't downsize even further on him.
Unfortunately for Atlanta, their wings just don't have the size to handle James. Bazemore is 6'5" and Sefolosha is 6'7", and neither would be described as bulky defenders.
The two have tried to get into LeBron's chest, but his strength has overpowered them this season, Bazemore specifically.
Like, seriously, just look at how much bigger LeBron is than Bazemore.
Another proposed solution for the Hawks is just to go way under on any pick and roll action. This is likely the wisest course of action over the course of a game, as it entices LeBron to lean on his notoriously shaky jumper. This didn't work for the Hawks in their three games this season, as James went 5-11 from distance.
He's been shooting much better in the second half of the season, but it might be wise to play the percentages here and give James room to shoot. LeBron will still attack a defender if they go too far under a screen though, and as I mentioned, if the Hawks are sticking him with a smaller wing, he can use a head of steam to absorb any contact and get a strong look at the rim.
Finally, a popular option suggested has been to stick Millsap on James. I think that the Hawks will go to this matchup on occasion, and it's proven to be effective in doses. Millsap can do a Boris Diaw impression on James, and it's longer defenders like Millsap that can really do strong work on James in isolation. Millsap will give James room, but unlike Bazemore, he'll have the requisite bulk to absorb the impact from the drive and not give away his position.
Millsap can also do strong work on James because of the way the Cavs have a tendency to very bluntly attack mismatches, preferring to let their offensive player try to score one on one. James has vexed fans for years with his tendency to jack up jumpers with a big switched onto him, and baiting him into his worst tendencies should be part of the game plan.
While Millsap has a chance on LeBron in isolation, the Cavaliers, if they so choose, can get creative with attacking the matchup.
The Cavaliers can run pick and roll action involving James as a ball handler, and that has proved to flummox Millsap in these matchups. He doesn't have a ton of experience defending the pick and roll as the on-ball defender, and putting him in a situation that makes him uncomfortable can go a long way.
The Hawks also likely won't have the luxury of putting Millsap on LeBron very often. The Cavs likely won't downshift in size as often as they did against the Pistons, and putting Millsap on LeBron means hiding Bazemore or one of their other wings on Thompson or Love. That's a recipe for disaster, as Love can post up any smaller defender and Thompson will feast even more than he normally does on the offensive boards.
All in all, I'm not sure there's a great solution for the Hawks, here. They don't have personnel that works to slow down James, and historically, that's what it's taken to really challenge his teams in a series. They can get creative and throw several different looks at him to try to confuse him, but they'll have to dominate the matchups on the margins of the series to account for the likely loss they'll take with whoever they stick on LeBron.