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NBA playoff preview: Cavaliers-Hawks rematch features different feel

The Cavaliers and Hawks meet in an Eastern Conference playoffs matchup that has a completely different feel. 

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Matchup: (1) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (4) Atlanta Hawks

Season Series: 3-0, Cavs

Cleveland's Efficiency Rankings (Off: 4, Def: 10, Net Rating: 4)

Atlanta’s Efficiency Rankings: (Off: 18, Def: 2, Net Rating: 7)

The Matchup

Does a series count as a proper rematch when neither team is quite as their playoff matchup last found them? Cleveland is an entirely different team with Kevin Love (who missed all of last year’s Eastern Conference finals) and Kyrie Irving (who missed half) healthy and involved; Atlanta’s defense has been reworked completely and has survived the departure of DeMarre Carroll in free agency. The names on both rosters may be largely the same, but both teams have evolved in function with better health, changes in coaching style, and rotation development.

Atlanta can only hope to find leverage in that changing dynamic. The full-time return of Love and Irving complicates much of what the Hawks will look to do defensively. Yet there’s something to be said for playing against an opponent with slightly compromised defensive personnel and an offense that isn’t a pure distillation of LeBron James. Cleveland’s options come with tradeoffs—perhaps enough to give Atlanta more ground in this series than was had in last year’s sweep.

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The Case for: The Cavs

In a first-round series against the Pistons, LeBron struck the perfect balance between facilitating the work of his teammates and imposing his presence on as many possessions as possible. That’s rotten news for the Hawks, who don’t have a particularly promising option for defending James one-on-one. All of Atlanta’s best perimeter defenders are too slight to deal with LeBron at full bore and a bit undersize for the task of contesting his shots. That imbalance gives the Cavs one of the series’ most distinct advantages: a reputable and easily accessible shot creator, regardless of matchup. There is no better fallback option in the league than rerouting a possession through LeBron’s hands. 

Cleveland will need that recourse in order to manage enough scoring against one of the top defenses in the league. Aiding in the effort will be Kyrie Irving (who averaged 27.5 points per game on 58.5% true shooting in the first round), Kevin Love (who has all the skills necessary to help break down the Hawks’ defense), and a lineup of gung-ho supporting shooters. A spread floor with multiple ball handlers gives the Cavs the basic elements necessary to compromise the Hawks’ system. Go smaller with Love at center and Cleveland should be able to strain Atlanta’s defense by lengthening its rotations and punishing its gambles with perimeter shooting. The nights grow longer—and the series shorter—for the Hawks the more that the Cavs run small.

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Those lineups should be feasible, too, because Atlanta doesn’t work the interior or create enough downhill movement to require a rim protector. So long as Love can stay relatively solid in coverage, he and LeBron can make for a potent big-man pairing. What they sacrifice in that set are second chances; lineups with Love and Tristan Thompson grabbed over 30% of Cleveland’s offensive rebounds within the season series, a clip that should give the Cavs natural starters a leg up in their offensive efficiency. Even if players like Irving and J.R. Smith don’t hold over their hot streaks from the first round, Love and Thompson will be able to scrounge up points by attacking one of Atlanta’s most pronounced weaknesses (defensive rebounding).

Love should be a central figure in this series for reasons well beyond his work on the glass. There will be opportunities for Love to pop into open threes whenever his defender attempts to trap a Cavs ball handler against the sideline, or to counter drive if an opponent closes out too aggressively. Regardless, the rotations and switches brought on by Atlanta’s particular style of defense are ripe for post-ups. Detroit experienced first-hand what little good stationing a combo forward type on Love can do. Give him an even smaller wing to work with and Love can easily back his way into favorable position. If Love can give Paul Millsap any kind of trouble defensively (and a pair of poor-shooting games in the regular season series suggests he might), Cleveland might control its matchup against Atlanta’s best player and swing over the top with its other two stars.


The Case for: The Hawks

To beat the Hawks requires passing precision. That may be no problem for James, who can whip a one-handed pass to the weak side corner with a shrug, but what of Irving and Matthew Dellavedova? Irving is prone enough to overdribbling that it could be worth Atlanta’s time to see if it can nudge him into that mode. Show enough pressure and Irving may eat the clock himself, stringing together dribble move after dribble move as he attempts to break down two closing defenders at once. Get Dellavedova in over his head and there may be lofting passes to pick off.

If those passes aren’t completely on-point, an opportunistic Hawk will snatch them out of mid-air. This is a vital form of three-point control; by applying initial pressure and looming in the passing lanes, Atlanta forces opponents to either attempt difficult feeds or resort to simpler, less productive passes. One course courts rampant turnovers. The other slows the progress of an offense that can be deadly when it has access to a direct kick-out. Irving will have to earn those kinds of opportunities by forcing direct breakdowns. That much is certainly within Irving’s ability, though if the Hawks can get him locked in on the thought of beating the defense to make plays, the balance in Irving’s game might tilt. 

Otherwise, Atlanta does a nice job of taking away the free, fast-break baskets that might otherwise help Cleveland subsist in lean stretches. Few teams in the league this season have done better in limiting an opponent’s transition opportunities or challenging their transition attempts. James and Irving will still explode into the open floor for a basket now and again; that much cannot be helped. Yet the Cavs play a noticeably slower game against the Hawks than their average opponent, a fact which lends itself to a playoff style if not peak offensive efficiency.

That kind of hyper-specific factor might not seem like much, but scrape together enough of those niche advantages and you have the platform for Atlanta’s starters. The Hawks’ first five were hugely successful in the regular season series against the Cavs, star power be damned. No lineup in this series has a more natural defensive chemistry, and none moves the ball so consistently. If Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer is able to get his starters even more minutes—and better yet: even more minutes together—they might be able to close the gap between these two teams. 

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And what the Hawks lack in a single, definitive option for guarding LeBron James, they’ll aim to make up in variety. Bazemore, Sefolosha, and Millsap will have their turn—as will a variety of other Hawks. Budenholzer can toy with an assortment of different schemes or devices. With no plausible lockdown option available, the best Atlanta can do is carry out every possession in a way that keeps LeBron guessing and forces the Cavs on the whole to make the right play. Meanwhile, Jeff Teague will slice through the lane to collapse Cleveland’s defense from the inside. Al Horford will makes his teammates better in the subtlest of ways. Kyle Korver (who made 45% of his threes in the first round) could well pick up where he left off against the Celtics. It’ll take some doing for the Hawks to survive those quarters where the good shots don’t fall. If they can manage, though, the balance of the series could be there for the taking.

The X-Factor

Kent Bazemore, Hawks. Atlanta has groomed Kent Bazemore to be a responsible, energetic contributor to team systems. They’ll need the best of him on both ends of the floor throughout this series, particularly if Sefolosha isn’t able to pose enough of a scoring threat to function as an alternative.

The Pick

Cavs in six. There are some if-all-goes-right scenarios that stand to make things interesting for the Hawks, but picking against LeBron James generally requires more than fuzzy conditionals.