The Cleveland Cavaliers swept the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals last year without Kevin Love. This was mostly on the back of LeBron James, who exploited an incredible mismatch with Atlanta's defense en route to a 30.3 point, 11 rebounds and 9.3 assist per game averages. Heading into this Eastern Conference Semifinal matchup, the conversation has centered around James, and how Atlanta, who is minus DeMarre Carroll this year, will defend him. This year's Hawks don't have a natural defensive matchup for LeBron, and that could lead to some interesting matchups being presented as Atlanta tries to negate LeBron's effectiveness and force other Cavs to beat them. Because Paul Millsap will likely be the most common defender for James, that means Love will be the one most commonly tasked with making the Hawks pay for that cross-match.
Love was excellent in the Detroit series, averaging 18.8 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 39.1 percent from three on nearly six attempts per game. The Pistons didn't have an ideal defensive matchup for Love, and he was able to be a strong secondary option for the Cavs, as he slid around the perimeter, worked with LeBron in the pick-and-roll, and occasionally drifted into the post against Tobias Harris and Stanley Johnson. This particularly bothered the Pistons in Game 1, where Love feasted off of the pick-and-roll to the tune of 28 points and 13 rebounds.
In the Atlanta series, Love will have a very important role for the same reason. The Cavs will run the LeBron/Love pick-and-roll a lot in order to attempt to force the Hawks to make decisions with Millsap and Kent Bazemore or Thabo Sefolosha. The Hawks will want to get Millsap on LeBron as much as possible, and this could mean that Love will get some time against Bazemore, who was a suboptimal spot-up defender this year (19th percentile, per NBA Synergy data). The Cavs could have a lot of success against the Hawks with this look, as Love will get good shots popping against Bazemore, and LeBron should be able to get the edge in the pick-and-roll against either if they don't switch it. Sefolosha could present more issues, as he's faster and has better length to contest Love's outside shooting. However, Sefolosha isn't as good at recovering as he is on the ball, and if LeBron gets some traction towards the basket off the screen, that could force Sefolosha to hesitate on his recovery, allowing Love to slide away into the left wing or corner, and that could be enough to get him a clean look.
Love also will likely get some time against Al Horford, especially when the Cavs go with their small lineups. Horford is probably the team's best overall defender, and he has the mobility to keep up with Love and comfortably switch onto smaller players out of the pick-and-roll. For this reason, the Cavs might not go small often against the Hawks, as Horford guarding Love in a Love/Tristan Thompson frontcourt look will mean that Millsap or a guard is defending Thompson, and that's a bad proposition if the Hawks want to get defensive rebounds or stop the Matthew Dellavedova/Tristan PNR lob combo. If they do go with small-ball though, Love might be able to do some damage to Horford in the post. He's an 83rd percentile scorer on the block this year, and while Horford's still decent there (66th percentile), Love has excellent footwork and can hit turnarounds comfortably against him, and sucking Horford into defending the block could allow the Cavs to make good use of guys like Iman Shumpert and even LeBron slashing to the basket, not having to worry about the Hawks' best weak side defender being in position at the rim.
Offensively, Love will be able to prey on the mismatches that LeBron presents, and that will be a huge difference-maker in how the Hawks are able to defend. If Love isn't hitting spot-up jumpers or getting post touches, they can more comfortably throw Millsap on LeBron, and better contain the Cavs' offensive sets. But given how he ended the season and has started the playoffs, and the matchups the Hawks will likely present, Love should have plenty of success on offense.
Defensively, Love will also likely play a key role for the Cavs. The Hawks' breathtaking offensive efficiency from last year has totally left them, as they ranked just 18th in offensive efficiency in the regular season and struggled their way to just 97.7 points/100 possessions in six games against Boston Celtics. However, they still have a frontcourt capable of doing some damage against the Cavs. Millsap and Horford are both versatile scorers who can move the ball well and stretch the floor, meaning Love will be tasked with shuttering some potentially damaging looks from both throughout the series.
Where Love could be a big factor is in rebounding, as the Cavs could let him and Tristan sit back towards the baseline and attempt to end Hawks possessions that way. The Hawks were just 24th in defensive rebound rate this year, and the Hawks had the third-lowest regular season adjusted offensive rebound chance percentage (percentage of all rebounds grabbed within 3.5 feet of a player), while the Cavs had the second highest percentage for defensive rebounds. Love was a big part of this, and he should be able to use his mobility and instincts to take advantage of the Hawks' propensity for moving their bigs away from the basket.
The Cavs could get burnt in the pick-and-roll this way, although sagging Love off of the pick-and-roll does help to limit the chances he gets beaten off the dribble by Jeff Teague or Dennis Schroder. And while Horford and Millsap are threatening three-point shooters, neither has been consistent through the second half of the season, as Millsap hit just 25 percent in the Boston series and 31 percent post-All-Star, while Horford is hitting 35 percent from three since the All-Star Break, although he did enjoy a nice little 40 percent renaissance against a depleted Boston frontcourt. Love may lose those guys off the ball in the PNR, but the overall prospect of sagging Love off of Millsap or Horford may pay dividends by daring those guys to shoot and allowing for more help against the Hawks' ball-handlers at the rim.
The Cavs would probably be best served avoiding the Love/Millsap matchup defensively, instead matching relative strength vs. relative strength by putting the more mobile Thompson on the off-the-bounce scorer Millsap, and letting Love match up with Horford, who he can match up better with in the post and on the glass. Against the Hawks' bench units, Love should probably guard Kris Humphries and Mike Muscala, for the same reason. The Hawks could potentially hurt Love on this end, but if the Cavs pick their spots wisely with him and the Hawks continue to struggle to shoot from the frontcourt, it likely limits the load Love will have to face on that end.
The Hawks are right to focus on stopping LeBron. He's the Cavs' best player, and they are not well prepared to handle him from a physical standpoint on defense. If they have any success with stopping James, Love will likely be the one who needs to capitalize on the offensive end. He also represents a weak link on the Cavs' defense, a player who the Hawks can and will attempt to attack out of the pick-and-roll and make defend in space. If Love can do both of these things well, it puts Atlanta in a massive bind to be able to defend the Cavs and keep up in scoring. If he struggles, that may make defending LeBron and scoring efficiently easier, which could make the series closer than expected. LeBron will play a massive role in how this series is decided. But if Kevin Love plays well, it could be the difference between Cavs in four or five or the series going six or seven games.