When LeBron James takes the floor on Wednesday night, he won’t be in uncharted territory. Not just because it’ll be his fifth straight appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals, but also due to the fact that he’ll be up against an opposition that’ll seem all too familiar.
Fresh off a franchise-record 60-win regular season, Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer has his Atlanta Hawks playing in the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time ever. Budenholzer is a proud disciple of the Gregg Popovich coaching tree, and the Hawks have adopted many of the Spurs’ mottos and philosophies.
The Hawks have drawn many comparisons to the defending champs as it pertains to their outstanding ball movement and their lack of boastful attitudes and cockiness. We’ve seen them share the ball astutely to the tune of a second-best 25.7 assists per game in the regular season and a league-best 25.4 this postseason. This enabled them to have one of the best offenses in the league that’s also predicated on excellent three-point shooting. So James will be up against a rather familiar foe with his new Cavaliers squad.
The San Antonio Spurs have stopped James’s teams from winning the title, not once, but twice. Judging by their roster back in 2007, the Cleveland Cavaliers had no business making it to the NBA Finals, where they were eventually swept by Tony Parker and the Spurs. They were able to elude the Spurs in 2012 when they defeated the Thunder in five games, which set up a rematch between the King and the well-oiled Spurs machine the next season.
Up until the final 27 seconds in Game 6, the Spurs looked like the superior team, but then late-game heroics by Ray Allen forced an overtime period, which led to a Heat victory. Then in Game 7, LeBron erupted for 37 points and 12 rebounds en route to a 95-88 series-clinching win and a championship.
But last year in record-setting fashion, San Antonio ended Miami’s run of back-to-back championship parades. James’s Heat were embarrassed in this five-game series, prompting a realization that it was time to go back home. As noted, there’s a large amount of history between LeBron and the Spurs, and although they might not be playing in this series, that might be revisited.
We’ve seen Popovich employ different strategies throughout his coaching career, particularly in the playoffs. He’s a believer in the Hack-a-Shaq method and used it against DeAndre Jordan in their first-round bout with the Clippers. And in the 2013 and 2014 Finals, we saw Pop consistently employ a defensive tactic that dared LeBron to shoot from the perimeter.
Back in the 2007 Finals when LeBron was still a kid, he struggled immensely to the tune of 36 percent shooting from the field and 20 percent from three-point range. The Spurs’ defense affected him psychologically as you saw him devoid of confidence on the floor, and he also had issues taking care of the basketball, averaging 5.7 turnovers in the four-game sweep.
The strategy almost worked in 2013 as James shot just 44 percent from the field and 35 percent from downtown in the seven-game series. These shooting percentages were significant drop-offs from what he averaged during the regular season, where he shot 56 percent and 40 percent, respectively. Down the stretch of that Game 6, the Heat needed to be immaculate and the Spurs had to pale in comparison. Fortunately for LeBron and the Heat, both of those things transpired, and now you can look back on the series and see that he averaged 25.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists and claim that Popovich’s plan didn’t work.
In the 2014 Finals, James made a conscious effort to ameliorate those struggles from the season before and it worked significantly. He shot 57 percent from the field and 51 percent from beyond the arc. Clearly, Pop’s plan wasn’t all that successful against LeBron, but he was the only individual on the court able to hurt the Spurs.
So now we’ll see if Budenholzer will go into the Popovich archives in search of the tutelage needed to stop LeBron. Of course the Hawks don’t have the same personnel as San Antonio, but they’re looking to do some of the same things. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili aren’t suiting up on Wednesday night, but the guys in that locker room all know that it’ll take a concerted team effort to stop the King.
Atlanta did win the season series 3-1 over the Cavaliers, and one of these victories occurred during the two-week hiatus LeBron took to heal from his nagging injuries.
My heart says: Hawks in 7. Atlanta exemplifies team basketball the way they play devoid any true superstars on its roster. They play with selflessness and everyone has bought into their system. Their coach is the right man for this job because he has learned from the best, and his ability to galvanize his team after winning just 38 games last year is commendable.
My head says: Don’t bet against the King. Cavs in 6. Throughout the season, a bevy of questions surrounded Cleveland pertaining to whether they could get it done. So far, those questions have been answered.
Ultimately it’ll come down to a plethora of factors in this series: Kyrie Irving‘s health, the role players of the Cavs stepping up, Kyle Korver’s ability to get over his slump, offensive execution down the stretch from both teams and the dominance of LeBron.
King James is in familiar territory and is hoping to fight off those demons that saw him lose two-of-three Finals to the Spurs. No, this team isn’t San Antonio and Mike Budenholzer isn’t Gregg Popovich. But both parties are looking to scratch the surface of the same success. James is only shooting 42 percent from the field in the postseason, which is his lowest mark since the 2007-08 playoffs and a dreadful career-low 14 percent from downtown.
With Kevin Love shelved for the remainder of the season and Irving suffering from foot and knee issues, the pressure is on James to rise above this adversity and deliver the goods for his team. The city hasn’t been able to celebrate a professional sports championship since 1964, and they’re salivating at the thought of them only being eight wins away from possibly doing so next month.
Will the King be able to get it done? James has been using cryotherapy to help his muscles recover and heighten his alertness. This therapy might assist him going forward, because he’ll need to be physically and mentally focused in order to propel Cleveland to its first Finals appearance since 2007.