(Ed. Note: Kevin didn't cheat. This was filed early Tuesday, but was caught up in our editing module without going live. Our apologies.--JSS)
When last we left the Cleveland Cavaliers, they were making quick work of the Detroit Pistons in a four-game sweep. That was nine days ago, and since then Cleveland has been waiting for a winner to emerge in the Atlanta.Miami series. Now the Cavaliers will at last tip things off against the Hawks, who needed seven games to take out the Heat.
WHEN THE CAVALIERS HAVE THE BALL
Cavaliers Offensive Rating: 114.3 (4th NBA) Regular Season, 115.1 (3rd) Playoffs
Hawks Defensive Rating: 109.0 (10th) Regular Season, 109.2 (9th) Playoffs
The NBA made it official yesterday, announcing that LeBron James had won his first of what is sure to be many MVP awards. Atlanta defended third-place finisher Dwyane Wade credibly in the opening round, but the task of defending James will be far more challenging. From a physical perspective, the 6'8", 250-pound James proves a difficult matchup for almost any defender. Maurice Evans, the Hawks' best individual defender, gives up three inches and 30 pounds. Marvin Williams offers good size at small forward, though he is not known for his defense.
Atlanta's best matchup might actually be power forward Josh Smith, who can counter James' athleticism but is also valuable to the Hawks as a help defender. Using Smith on James at times would be acceptable if Williams could pick up a bigger player or if the Cavaliers play small, but putting Evans on a power forward is untenable.
No matter the primary defender, Atlanta will have to defend James as a team. That strategy worked against Wade because, with the exception of Games Two and Three, the Heat's role players struggled to hit open shots from the perimeter. Cleveland is much more dangerous in this regard, with guards Mo Williams, Delonte West and Daniel Gibson and backup forward Wally Szczerbiak all capable of making the Hawks pay for leaving them open. That's the biggest difference between the Cavaliers and the Heat at the offensive end of the floor.
Williams gives Cleveland another dimension Miami was missing--a point guard who can create out of pick-and-roll situations and attack Atlanta's weak link at the defensive end, point guard Mike Bibby. Williams torched the Hawks for 23.3 points per game in four regular-season matchups, shooting 53.7 percent from the field and 50.0 percent from downtown. Atlanta needs Bibby on the floor for his sure ballhandling and shooting ability, so there's really not a lot Mike Woodson can do with Williams.
Defensive rebounding has been a weakness for the Hawks, and while the Cavaliers are no longer an elite team on the offensive glass, this is still a weakness they can exploit. Zydrunas Ilgauskas' size creates a lot of second chances, while Anderson Varejao and Ben Wallace rely more on energy. Ilgauskas and reserve Joe Smith will both stretch Atlanta's defense with their ability to shoot with range off of pick-and-pops.
Cleveland's strong offense in the opening round against Detroit was odd in that James and Smith were the only two Cavaliers to play particularly well in the series. Cleveland's long-range shooting was MIA, the team hitting just 30.9 percent from three-point range. When James is playing like he did against the Pistons, it covers a lot of holes. In an extremely slow-paced series, James averaged 32.0 points and 7.5 assists, shooting better than 50 percent from the field.
WHEN THE HAWKS HAVE THE BALL
Hawks Offensive Rating: 111.1 (10th) Regular Season, 105.9 (13th) Playoffs
Cavaliers Defensive Rating: 103.5 (3rd) Regular Season, 93.3 (1st) Playoffs
Atlanta advanced despite ranking 13th of the 16 playoff teams in Offensive Rating in the first round. While they may not be world-beaters at that end of the floor, the Hawks are certainly capable of playing better. That starts with a more consistent effort from Joe Johnson, who was terrible most of the series before coming up with 25 points in Game Five and 27 in Game Seven. Johnson should draw West defensively, as well as James when he slides to small forward alongside Flip Murray. The Cavaliers have to like the latter matchup, with James having the advantage in terms of size and strength.
Johnson, Smith and Bibby all scored precisely 93 points to share leading scorer honors against Miami. The matchup gets a lot worse for Smith, who averaged 9.7 points in three games against Cleveland this season. The Cavaliers were the only Eastern Conference opponent to limit Smith to single-digit scoring. Their defense cuts down on the kind of off-the-ball movement and lobs Smith freed himself for against the more permissive Heat, and Smith's outside shooting remains an ongoing disaster that has become a bigger story during this postseason.
Things look more favorable for Bibby. Maurice Williams is the weakest defender in the Cleveland starting lineup, and the Cavaliers will concede the occasional open three-point look. Bibby was the most efficient Atlanta scorer in the first round, knocking down 53.8 percent of his threes.
Woodson believes the absence of Marvin Williams, who suffered a sprained wrist during Game Two and played just five minutes the rest of the series, was a key reason the Hawks struggled offensively against Miami. Teams certainly respect Williams as a scorer more than they do Evans, which opens things up for everyone else. In less than half the playing time, Williams scored 7.0 points per game to Evans' 6.8 in the first round. Al Horford is the other Atlanta player working back from an injury, having missed Game Six after turning his ankle. Horford returned for Game Seven, but was not hugely effective.
Having both Horford and Williams would give Woodson a solid group of eight players at his disposal. The Hawks got effective minutes in the first round off the bench from Zaza Pachulia, who averaged 7.5 points and 7.7 rebounds, while Evans started most of the series and Murray played his customary role as sixth man. Murray did not play well against Miami, shooting 35.8 percent from the field and 6-for-22 from three-point range, but Atlanta loves his ability to create off the dribble. Alas, Murray's brand of isolation-heavy basketball plays right into Cleveland's hands defensively.
The Cavaliers, the league's third-best defensive team, completely took the Detroit Pistons out of anything they wanted to do on offense. (Assuming, that is, the Pistons knew what they wanted to do.) Especially impressive was the job Cleveland did of shutting down Detroit's long-range attack. The Pistons made 12 three-pointers in four games, hitting them at a 24.5 percent clip. The Hawks won without making a high percentage of their threes in the first round (31.1 percent); they will need that shot to fall more regularly in this series.
Cleveland is the overwhelming favorite in this series, with substantial advantages at both the offensive and defensive ends. The Cavaliers have the best player on the floor, the home-court, are better rested and won the season series 3-1. An Atlanta victory would be an enormous upset, and would require at the very least that the Hawks hold James in check as they did Wade, that Cleveland's outside shooting does not reappear and that the Hawks find enough offense to keep the Cavaliers from grinding out wins like Game of their series with Detroit.
While winning the series is an unrealistic goal, it's not crazy to think that Atlanta can make things interesting along the lines of the team's last meeting with a top-seeded squad, last year's opening-round series with Boston that went the full seven games. The Hawks are a tough out at Philips Arena, though I still think Cleveland will steal at least one of the two games in the ATL en route to a five-game series win.
Cavaliers in five.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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