The Atlanta Hawks will host the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Wednesday night. This is the Hawks’ first ever appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals, while this is LeBron James‘s fifth consecutive trip. Let’s take a closer look at the Hawks as they prepare for this series.
How the Hawks Got Here
After finishing just 38-44 last year amidst a serious Al Horford injury and another first-round exit, the Hawks were determined not to be disappointed once again. Horford has successfully returned from a second pectoral tear and second-year coach Mike Budenholzer has blossomed into one of the league’s premier coaches, winning this season’s Coach of the Year award. Before all that was history, though, a 7-6 start had Hawks fans worrying that they were destined for another season of .500 mediocrity.
But then something crazy happened.
Atlanta won a mind-boggling 33 of 35 games and more or less locked up the Eastern Conference’s top seed at 40-8. They ultimately finished 60-22, faltering a little down the stretch as they battled various minor injuries and emphasized some much-deserved rest for their players. Some saw a still elite team biding its time while awaiting the playoffs; others saw legitimate warning signs that the unbeatable Hawks of midseason were long gone. As is almost always the case in life, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
Atlanta scrapped to a 2-0 lead in the first round vs. Brooklyn that somewhat obscured the team’s ongoing struggles. Have no fear, though, as the Nets’ ensuing two victories more than sounded the panic alarm for the Hawks. They recovered to put away Brooklyn, who really had no business making the playoffs anyway. A better test was coming next in John Wall and Washington.
Despite injuries to Wall and Bradley Beal, the frisky Wizards stole Game 1 in Atlanta, highlighting the potential weakness of Atlanta’s lack of star power. But the Hawks caught a break, and Wall’s hand/wrist injury was worse than initially thought. Atlanta recovered to comfortably win Game 2 behind some hot shooting, but a massive late comeback in Game 3 (the Hawks outscored Washington 35-18 in the final quarter) was squashed by perhaps the last iconic shot Paul Pierce will ever drain. He called “game.”
The Hawks were able to turn it around and claim the last three games by a slim margin. They were the better team, but the Wizards knew they had their chances and let them slip away. Atlanta enters the Eastern Conference Finals with confidence, but the last two rounds have done little to build on it.
Key Player: Kyle Korver
Kyle Korver isn’t the best player on Atlanta, but it’s hard to make the case that any Hawk is more valuable to the team. Korver led Atlanta in total minutes and started more games than everyone except Horford. As a team, the Hawks outscored their opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions in the regular season, per NBA.com. With Korver on the floor, however, that number skied to 10.9 points per 100 possessions; the next Atlanta starter was Jeff Teague at 8.6. (Interesting note: Thabo Sefolosha had the second-highest net rating among Hawks. His injury is unfortunately a legitimate game-changer for Atlanta.)
When Korver left the floor, though, the Hawks went to hell. Almost unbelievably, the Hawks were outscored by 3.1 points per 100 possessions with Korver on the bench. No other Hawk even had a negative off-court rating, with Paul Millsap the next starter at +2.3. The defense didn’t suffer much, but when Korver left the floor the offensive rating plummeted from an elite 110.8 points per 100 possessions down to an ugly 98.9. Clearly, Korver’s presence on the floor is an absolute necessity.
Budenholzer knows this, and Korver has led Atlanta in minutes this playoffs at 38.1 per game. Korver has struggled thus far, especially against Washington. He knocked down under 29 percent of his threes in Round 2 after draining a ridiculous 49.2 percent during the season. At seven attempts per game, that’s almost 1.5 made threes a game missing from Atlanta’s offense.
Whether or not the triples fall, Korver will relentlessly work to navigate screens and find open space in Cleveland’s defense. His shooting prowess is legendary enough that Cleveland will have to maintain focus on his presence and try to cut off chances at good looks. If Korver gets his groove back and the Cavs can’t find a way to slow him down, the Hawks are in good shape. If Cleveland, like Washington, can limit Korver with physicality and positioning, Atlanta won’t be able to coast by like they did previously.
How the Hawks can Win the Series
Korver’s production is obviously of massive importance, but several other matchups in the series will help determine the ultimate victor. David Blatt and Mike Budenholzer figure to have some interesting chess matches ahead of them. In Round 2, Blatt was forced to adapt like crazy due to Kevin Love‘s season-ending shoulder surgery and Kyrie Irving‘s mid-playoffs lower body swap with Dwyane Wade. (Okay I’m kidding, but Irving is quite banged up.) After starting Mike Miller failed spectacularly, Blatt settled on a Tristan Thompson–Timofey Mozgov duo that tanked the offense at times but yielded spectacular defense.
While the Bulls run an offense that I’m not sure how to even describe because there isn’t a system, the Hawks are disciplined and dangerous. Millsap is a legitimate shooting power forward who can give the Cavs’ big front line major problems. Mozgov has been fantastic protecting the rim, so the spacing Millsap and Horford provide are so key.
Teague is a pick-and-roll maestro who’s likely giddy at the prospect of Irving guarding him. The Cavs can choose to put Iman Shumpert on Teague, but that leaves Irving on DeMarre Carroll or Korver. We already know Irving has no chance chasing Korver on bad legs, but Carroll is an interesting possiblity. DeMarre has been one of the Hawks’ biggest contributors of late and is more than capable of knocking down threes and crashing the offensive glass. If Irving can stick with him, Shumpert has a much better chance at neutralizing Teague.
It’ll also be interesting to watch how the teams match up when Cleveland inevitably goes small with LeBron at power forward. Carroll will likely draw the assignment still, but we’ll see if Budenholzer keeps Carroll at wing and tries to beat Cleveland’s small ball with a bigger lineup. I would expect to see Coach Bud continue to experiment with small lineups that include both Dennis Schröder and Teague with Korver and Carroll. The defensive cross-matchups and ensuing results will go a long way toward deciding who will represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals.
I’ve changed my mind on this several times and I expect this to be a very close series. Ultimately, Atlanta has a few too many advantages for me to comfortably pick Cleveland. The Hawks have home-court advantage, meaning they’ll host Games 1 and 2 and a potential Game 7. They also have far more depth, even with the crucial loss of Sefolosha. The Cavs have a solid starting five and J.R. Smith right now.
Matthew Dellavedova is a legitimate NBA player but shouldn’t be playing crunch-time minutes, if any, next to LeBron James in the playoffs. James Jones can’t really run anymore, although he can still knock down threes. Miller hasn’t been seen since the Game 1 disaster vs. Chicago. The Cavs might have just left him there.
The Hawks have four All-Stars, a highly talented two-way wing in Carroll, and a relatively weak bench that would somehow be a godsend in Cleveland. (Seriously–imagine if Schröder was Irving’s backup.)
Further, Budenholzer has earned the reputation as a wily and cerebral head coach who isn’t afraid to tinker and make adjustments. Blatt fears nothing as well, but he has yet to prove an ability to manage a title contender’s rotation. LeBron has played almost 42 minutes a game in the playoffs, which is understandable. But he has also played around 100 games a year for each of the last four seasons and clearly ran out of gas in last year’s Finals. He obviously can still dominate offensively at will, but more and more James has taken defensive possessions off or neglected to get back in transition. It’s a matter of fatigue, not laziness.
The injuries to Blatt’s top players have been brutal, but there’s no excuse for playing Kendrick Perkins in the playoffs in 2015. Starting Miller in Game 1 was obviously ill-advised as well, but at least Blatt has seemingly learned from that mistake. Regardless, Budenholzer has done very little to raise concern about his ability to manage a team at the highest level. It’s a legitimate edge for Atlanta.
LeBron is still easily the best player on either team, and it’s nearly impossible to envision him losing a Game 7. James is pretty much unbeatable in high pressure closeout games, but I believe Atlanta is capable of finishing the Cavs off if they can grab the necessary 3-2 advantage. Atlanta has too many configurations to throw at Cleveland and too many ways to beat them. The Cavs have LeBron running pick-and-rolls, a very hobbled Irving and Thompson offensive rebounds. That really might be enough. The Eastern Conference is as truly crappy as ever, and I expect the winner of this series to get eviscerated by Golden State. But you’re always one freak play away from being the favorite, and Dallas proved in 2011 that sometimes the underdog has all the tools necessary to get the upset. I’m picking Atlanta in the tightest six-game series possible, but if they can’t seal the deal, it’s Cleveland in seven.