After going down 2-1 in their second-round match-up with the Bulls, Lebron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers found a way to dismantle the pesky Chicago defense, winning three straight to claim a 4-2 series victory and a trip to the conference finals. Their opponent will be the No.1 seed Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks have had some problems in their first two rounds, but they also finished their latest series winning three straight games, of which two games were on the road.
Both teams have lost a single game at home, but unlike the Hawks, the Cavaliers have proven to be a dangerous road team, winning four of their five games. Atlanta and Cleveland have been efficient on the defensive end, ranking second and fourth respectively, so a traditional defensive battle will be expected in the East again this year.
The Hawks have been very consistent on defense all year long, and rank second in the league in defensive efficiency during the postseason. Horford has been their defensive anchor in the middle, and his ability to make the mid-range jumper will force the opponent’s center to step out and open the paint. This will be crucial for the Atlanta offense, because Cavaliers rim protector Timofey Mozgov has been a beast on the defensive end.
Mozgov has been the league’s best rim protector, limiting the opponent to shoot an abysmal 34.7% around the rim in his presence. In addition with 2.2 blocks in only 25.2 minutes per game, his impact for the Cavaliers on the defensive end of the floor can hardly be overstated.
Key in this series will be how both teams will defend the long ball. The Cavs and the Hawks rely heavily on the three-point shot. In the postseason, 35.5% of the field goals the Cavaliers attempt are from behind the line, while Atlanta isn’t far behind with 33.4%. To put this in perspective, no other team in the East surpassed the 30% mark.
Sharpshooter Kyle Korver attempts over 8 shots per game from behind the arc, but he hasn’t been very efficient in the playoffs, making only 35.0% of them – 14.2% less than during the regular season. Cleveland will count on Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith to chase Korver around to keep him in check. Shumpert, in particular, has been very successful during the playoffs in defending the three. His direct opponents shoot 11.1% worse than normal when he is defending them. No other player in the Eastern Conference does better.
The Cavaliers have been solid on offense as well. With the absence of Love and Irving’s game-time limited, it might come as a surprise that Cleveland ranks first in offensive efficiency in the playoffs, besting offensive powerhouses like the Warriors and the Rockets. All depends on Lebron James, who has been forced to be a one-man show more than he might have liked. During the regular season, James was in isolation situations about 8 times per game, a number that increased heavily to 13 times in the playoffs. DeMarre Carroll will defend James most of the time, and he has been quite successful during the regular season, when Atlanta won three of their four meetings.
The Hawks have no go-to guy in the stretch, and that was clear in their series against the Wizards. Was it not for a lucky offensive rebound and put-back, it could have been the Wizards getting ready to play the Cavaliers. For Cleveland, a lot will depend on the health of Kyrie Irving. If he can compete at a high level against Atlanta’s All-Star point guard Jeff Teague, they might have the edge in this series. Game 1 will be played on Thursday, May 20 at 10:30AM AEST.