Last year, the Cleveland Cavaliers swept the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference finals and earned their second berth in the NBA championship round in the franchise’s history.
This year, they take on the Hawks in the conference semi-finals after Atlanta eliminated Boston in six games in the first round.
What can the Cavs expect starting on Monday night?
For the season, the wine and gold averaged 104.3 points per game compared to 102.8 for the Hawks. Defensively, the Cavaliers allowed 98.3 points (4th) compared to 99.2 (6th) for the team from the Peachtree State.
After last season, the Hawks were branded as a ball movement team that relied on the three point shot, led by Kyle Korver. Actually, the Cavs took 100 more shots from beyond the arc, and finished 7th in threes made, compared to Atlanta’s middle of the pack rank (15th).
Down the stretch, the Hawks became a tenacious defensive group, allowing the worst field goal percentage in the NBA at 43.2%. Tyronn Lue’s group ranked 14th in this category.
Mike Budenholzer’s squad also ranked 5th in defense against the three point shot. So, there is no doubt that Atlanta is very good at defending shooters.
However, it becomes a problem for them once a shot is missed.
The Hawks are simply not a good rebounding team. Twenty three teams had more rebounds than them, and they allowed the 4th most offensive rebounds in the sport.
Cleveland was 9th in total rebounds and allowed the fifth least offensive rebounds as a team in 2015-16.
That makes Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love keys to this series. If they can keep possessions alive after missed shots and can convert, that’s very demoralizing to opposing teams.
Jeff Teague improved his long range shooting tremendously this season, hitting 40% of his three point shots, compared to 34% a year ago. He can be a handful for Kyrie Irving, who must stop penetration.
He did not shoot well from distance against Boston, so we would test his ability to make shots early in the series.
His backup, Dennis Schroder, who plays a lot, isn’t a good shooter from outside.
Atlanta’s best player is veteran Paul Millsap, an undersized four at 6’8″, but a very good scorer at 17 points per night. He is very good at converting second chances, Love, Thompson, and company must keep him off the boards.
Because of Millsap’s size, it will be easy for Lue to use LeBron James at the four. The Cavs should be able to match up easily if they want to go small.
Al Horford is Atlanta’s third leading scorer, and he’s a bit undersized to play the center spot. Also, he seems to want to take more shots from the perimeter, which if we were playing defense, would be exactly what we wanted him to do.
And there is no question that Cleveland has to keep an eye on Kyle Korver, one of the NBA’s best long range shooters.
His three point shooting dropped by 10% this season, but you can’t let him get open looks. You are surprised if he misses those.
Also, when he is on the floor, you have to go at him defensively. He’s not a strong defender, and now 35 years old, isn’t getting any quicker.
With the home court advantage, it will be critical for the Cavs to come out and win the first two, obviously. If they can win big, after last year’s sweep, the Hawks could be demoralized early.
This also shouldn’t be a physical of a series as the first round match up vs. Detroit was. Atlanta doesn’t have the big bodies, but they are a better defensive team.
If Love and Irving are shooting well, we would figure the Cavs in no more than five games.