The Eastern Conference Finals are set to begin Wednesday night, with the Cleveland Cavaliers taking on the Atlanta Hawks. While regular-season matchups are typically taken with enough grains of salt to raise your blood pressure to epic and dangerous proportions, it should still be noted that Atlanta won the season series three games to one. More importantly, and to the dismay of Cavaliers fans, the mismatches and advantages that the Hawks had in the regular season are still there. To be frank, Atlanta should (and probably will, in my opinion) win this series for these three reasons.
3. The Bench
Assuming the Hawks and Cavs stick with their most recent starting lineups, their nine-man rotations will likely look like this:
The Schroder, Bazemore, Antic and Muscala group have combined for 1.1 Win Shares and an average PER of roughly 12 this postseason. For the Cavs, Smith, Dellevadova, Jones and Perkins have combined for 1.3 Win Shares, but have an average PER of 9.4. Of course, advanced stats won’t convince everyone, nor do they mean too much without context.
We may not see platoon-style substitutions (word up to Mark Jackson!!!), but we can envision these particular matchups to a degree.
The point-guard matchup seems to be relatively even on paper, with both Schroder and Dellavedova being hounds defensively. Smith vs. Bazemore should be an interesting battle of offense (Smith) and defense (Bazemore); add in the fact that both can be pretty erratic and it might be safe to call those two the X-factors of their respective bench units.
It gets murky up front for Cleveland, with Jones hoping to find his shot while, assuming Jones plays in small-ball units, possibly being matched up against a bigger, active big in Muscala, who has played well as of late. Oh, good luck to Perkins possibly having to chase Antic at the three-point line. Perkins is pretty much there for interior defense and hard fouls; it’s pretty difficult to fulfill those requirements playing 20 feet from the basket. He’ll surely see as few minutes as possible in this series.
2. Playing Styles
It’s no secret that the Hawks want to play a more up-tempo game. While they ranked a modest 15th in pace this year, Atlanta’s offensive flow has been hindered in the postseason by teams that play slower, and have size and skill up front to bother Atlanta’s talented, but smallish frontcourt.
The Nets, 24th in pace, had Brook Lopez to throw the ball to in the low post, and he had himself a solid series. More importantly, that slowed the game, thus making it more difficult for Atlanta to establish a consistent rhythm. The Wizards played a little faster this year, ranked 18th in pace, but still mucked the game up inside with Marcin Gortat and Nene, and ran plenty of action for Paul Pierce.
The Cavs are extremely talented, headlined by the NBA’s best player in LeBron. They ranked eighth in points per game and third in offensive rating in the regular season. The issue though, was how slow (25th in pace) and bland their offense was schematically. They’ve really struggled (by their standards) a bit offensively this postseason, with their points per game dropping from 103.1 to 99.6, due in large part to how isolation-heavy they’ve continued to be.
We saw it a good bit in the Bulls series, where Chicago simply crowded the paint and dared LeBron to beat them from the perimeter, did a good job of periodically hedging hard when LeBron was the ball handler in pick-and-roll situations to give him different looks, and coming with late, hard double-teams when LeBron was in the post. Atlanta is a strong defensive team, and I expect to see them mix up their looks defensively, blitz hard in pick-and-roll coverage to force the ball out of LeBron’s hands and force other guys to beat them.
Rushed or ill-advised shots for Cleveland could lead to easy transition looks for Atlanta. Cleveland’s going to have to find a way to get off-ball movement going to open up its options offensively, even if they do want to slow the game some. Atlanta isn’t a team that Cleveland is just going to be able to out-talent in a series. They’re relatively easy to guard in the half court, and unlike Boston and especially Chicago, Atlanta has the offense to take advantage of Cleveland’s bad possessions.
If Atlanta controls the pace, this series could get ugly.
1. Atlanta’s a Matchup Nightmare
This is the biggest problem that Cleveland has to deal with, which is a bit funny considering the team’s best player, LeBron, is probably one of the three or four most versatile players in NBA history. It has already been a bit nerve-wrecking to attempt to explain this to the “They said the same thing about Chicago and look what happened!?!?!?” crowd on social media, so the opportunity to break this down in long form excites me a little bit.
Traditional matchups between the starters would have Irving guarding Teague, Shumpert chasing around Korver, LeBron covering Carroll, Thompson guarding Millsap and Mozgov guarding Horford. Considering the amount of off-ball movement and pick-and-rolls/pops the Hawks attack with, this immediately screams “DANGER” for Mozgov and Kyrie in 1/5 pick-and-roll coverage.
Irving’s foot and knee have progressed, and he’s expected to play in Game 1 because he’s a gamer. But if you have the time, check out Kyrie play pick-and-roll defense throughout the season. After that, look at gimpy Kyrie try to guard Derrick Rose in pick-and-roll coverage from this past series. Tell the truth; you cried, didn’t you? Now while you’re looking at Bulls-Cavs clips, pay attention to how Mozgov guarded Pau Gasol in pick-and-pop situations before Cleveland finally put Thompson on him.
Mozgov is a very good low post defender and rim protector, but he struggles guarding bigs in space. Horford, of course, is one of the NBA’s very best mid-range shooters and Teague is a menace in pick-and-roll opportunities. The Cavs could always throw Thompson on Horford, but that would leave Mozgov on Millsap, probably an even worse matchup.
If the Cavs plan to hide Irving, where would they do it? They could put Shumpert on Teague, which makes sense, but a gimpy Irving chasing Korver everywhere doesn’t make much sense, especially considering how Irving had issues running with Mike Dunleavy last round. If they hide Irving on Carroll, that either places LeBron on Teague or Korver depending on where they put Shumpert; LeBron is good enough to guard both, of course, but that isn’t an ideal strain that David Blatt would want to put on LeBron considering his offensive workload.
Back to the frontcourt ordeal, Thompson and Mozgov together could continue to make things tough for Cleveland offensively. To be fair, Thompson and Mozgov could really give Cleveland one heck of an advantage on the offensive and defensive glass, which is a weakness of Atlanta’s. However, neither Mozgov nor Thompson spread the floor at all, which cramps up driving lanes for LeBron and Kyrie. Cleveland could go small and run Kyrie-JR-Shumpert-LeBron-Thompson, but that takes away Cleveland’s lone, consistent scoring punch off the bench, and takes away shot blocking at the rim.
Ultimately, I think Cleveland’s best shot at matching up with Atlanta is having LeBron suck it up and play major minutes at the 4 alongside Thompson. That would at least give Cleveland the ability to blitz or switch on pick-and-rolls to even the playing field. LeBron guarding Millsap then being guarded by Carroll on the other end is an ugly proposition though.
Nobody should deny the fact that Cleveland has the best, and most likely the second-best player in the series in LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. On the flip-side, nobody should deny the Hawks have the edge everywhere else. Their bench is deeper and better. They’re schematically better on both sides of the ball, which further points to the coaching edge Mike Budenholzer (aka, this year’s Coach of the Year) has on David Blatt. More importantly, even with their top-heavy talent, the Cavs simply don’t match up well with the Hawks.
Don’t be surprised if — or when — the Cavs lose this series.