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Dennis Schröder is the Hawks’ X-factor vs. Cavaliers

The Eastern Conference Finals between the Hawks and Cavaliers is about to start, and everyone knows what to expect from each team. After two full rounds already in the books, the strengths and weakness of the two squads are well known and coaches have had time to game plan for specific situations. In those circumstances the unpredictable players can swing the fate of their team by catching opponents off guard with surprisingly good play or exploiting a favorable matchup. No one fits that descriptions as potential X-factor in the East Finals as well as the Hawks’ Dennis Schröder.

The sophomore German point guard took a huge step forward this season, showing off the quickness and fearlessness that made him such an intriguing prospect. His shot comes and goes, though, and he can get tunnel vision at times and take tough shots instead of making the easy pass. He’s still long and has the tools to be an above-average defender, but the fundamentals aren’t there. In essence, the 21-year-old has plenty of potential but isn’t reliable enough yet to be a major contributor, yet has been thrust into the role of primary bench scorer and creator all out of necessity.

As steady as the starting lineup is, Atlanta’s bench leaves a lot to be desired. Pero Antic is a stretch big man who can’t shoot, Mike Muscala does a little bit of everything but nothing at an elite level and Kent Bazemore has never developed a consistent outside shot or harnessed his athleticism. What they all have in common is none of them can create for themselves or others, which forces Schröder into a bigger role than he’s ready for at this point. As a result, the offense often dies when Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap rest.

The Hawks have survived the struggles of their subs so far, but another poor showing could be deadly against a surprisingly effective Cavaliers bench. J.R. Smith, Matthew Dellavedova and even James Jones have come up big for Cleveland at different points in the postseason. Stopping LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and the rest of the starters will be hard enough. If the Hawks can’t make a dent when those guys rest, it’s hard to imagine how they’ll beat the Cavaliers. That’s why they need Good Schröder to show up.

At his best, the German Rondo — a nickname that was a compliment when he earned it — contributes to the Hawks’ swarming defense by creating turnovers. His speed allows him to get past his man and either finish at the rim or draw an extra defender, leading to open shots for his teammates or offensive rebounds. He might even hit a corner three, if he’s left open.

That version of Schröder could be a nightmare to deal with for the Cavaliers. Dellavedova is scrappy but doesn’t have the lateral quickness to stay with him, and Cleveland is a mediocre defensive rebounding team. Constant dribble penetration should cause breakdowns, which Atlanta is amazing at capitalizing on. Unfortunately, Schröder often settles for jumpers after a ball screen, a shot the defense is happy to concede. If he can’t curb that temptation to pull up, Atlanta’s offense will struggle.

The Hawks will need him to do more than just run bench units, too. The Cavaliers like to go with two point-guard lineups often, slating Dellavedova next to Irving. With Kyrie not fully healthy, that might be something they rely on even more, hoping to ease his ball handling burden. The Hawks could match with Teague and Schröder, something they’ve reluctantly tried in the postseason but might be forced to deploy now.

The pairing has been a disaster, with Atlanta being outscored by 13 points in the 51 minutes they’ve shared the court, per NBA.com. Both are better with the ball in their hands and often get in each other’s way on offense, yet they’ll need to find a way to make that partnership productive to counter Cleveland’s. The onus will be on Teague as the veteran to sacrifice, but Schröder will also need to make an effort to move without the ball, something he should excel at but often refuses to do.

It’s probably unfair to ask a young player who’s still in a developing stage to be a consistent contributor. It’s easy to say Schröder should change his style at least for this one series, but he has come this far by being aggressive with the ball in his hands. He knows no other way, and when things are going well he’s positively electric, the type of player who can change a game. When things go poorly, however, a 3-11 night in which he freezes out his teammates is often the result, which could be death against Cleveland.

The big names will get most of the attention, as well they should. Which starting unit gets the best of the other will have a huge impact on this series. If it becomes a war of attrition, however, the bench play will be of utmost importance, as the Clippers’ collapse in the Western Conference Semifinals proved. For the Hawks to have a chance to prevail in that area, Schröder will have to find the balance between aggressive and smart play and figure out how to be useful even when he’s not running the show. The talent is there for him to do just that and be a major factor. Atlanta has to hope the will and the focus is as well.

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