In recent years, LeBron James has made a habit of winning the Eastern Conference, even when his teams haven’t captured the No. 1 seed during the regular season. Despite twice losing that crown––once each to Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers––James’s teams haven’t only made, but won four straight Eastern Conference Finals. This season, despite once again not winning the regular-season conference crown, LeBron has already led his Cleveland Cavaliers to his fifth straight conference finals; it’s now just a question of if he’ll make it five straight Finals berths.
This year, it was the Atlanta Hawks who surprised everyone to capture the East’s best record, snagging the top seed from James and Cleveland. But even while ATL was raining threes and putting four guys on the All-Star team, there were many who believed that any team with James was ultimately going to be the favorite in the East, especially one that also featured Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.
Now the Cavs will have to face the other Eastern Conference foe they’ve been compared to for the entire season with a chance to prove that they truly have been the favorite all along.
How the Cavs Got Here
Beat the Chicago Bulls in 6 games – The Cavaliers were able to make weirdly brief work of their borderline-rival Bulls in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, ending the series in six games, the last of which was an uninspiring, anticlimactic dismantling of the Bulls on their home court by Cleveland. This came even without Love, lost for the postseason due to his separated shoulder in the final game of the Boston series.
Despite a pair of game-winning buzzer-beaters and a bunch of close games in the series, the six-game showdown between the two Midwestern teams was a grind akin to the last hour of work on a Friday. The Cavs shot 42 percent for the series while the Bulls shot just 40 percent, and the teams attempted 256 total free throws in those half-dozen games. While it was a competitive series, neither team necessarily brought out the best in the other, and Cleveland is surely glad to escape (relatively) unscathed.
Key player/X-factor – Kyrie Irving
Irving was hobbled by issues with his left knee and right foot for the duration of the Chicago series, and it showed. Irving betrothed his ball handling duties to James and worked mostly off the ball when he was on the floor, electing for spot-up jumpers and drives off closeouts rather than trying to force the issue in iso or pick-and-roll situations. He still averaged 17 points and shot 42 percent from 3, but he wasn’t the great All-Star scoring point guard that he typically is on offense.
Presently, Irving says he feels “amazing,” per Adam Kilgore at the Washington Post, and he’ll play in Game 1 of the Atlanta series. As a team, the Hawks are solid defensively, but to a man, they’re not a shutdown squad on defense. If Irving truly is healthy, his penetration will give the Cavaliers a much-needed weapon on offense to break down the opposing defense.
Too often in the Chicago series Cleveland fell back on stagnant LeBron isolations that killed its offense, usually ending in a long missed jumper, a shot-clock violation, or some other type of turnover. No one else on the Cavaliers can dependably create their own shot or even get to the rim, aside from J.R. Smith, but that’s a measure David Blatt would rather not take in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. A healthy Irving can, though, and his presence should help balance out that offense and hopefully balance out the pressure on LeBron, who has seen his jump-shot completely fall apart in these playoffs.
Being one of the most dynamic offensive point guards in the league, Irving can help remedy all of that, something the Cavaliers desperately need, given that they won’t get past Atlanta with LeBron shooting 39 percent as he did against the Bulls.
How the Cavs Will Win the Series
Defending the paint/three-point line – Although the Hawks ran through the earlier parts of the regular season, they were a very mortal team coming down the stretch, finishing 11-10 before struggling at times in each of their six-game playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards.
Thanks to coach Mike Budenholzer of the Popovich coaching tree, the Hawks’ offense hums along on ball movement and good shots, which, given the expertise of their ball movement, often means three-pointers. Atlanta has struggled to replicate this strategy at its regular-season levels during the half-court slog of the postseason, and Cleveland could continue that trend. They have the defensive personnel to shut down the Hawks to a man, namely Iman Shumpert, who will surely be tasked with chasing Kyle Korver around, and if the last two series are any indication, he’ll be up for the task.
If the Cavs can limit the Hawks’ quality looks from three, they should be OK, since Cleveland has been very good cleaning up the glass and have a strong rim protector in Timofey Mozgov.
Cavaliers in 6