The journey LeBron James is on begins it’s third step, the Eastern conference finals, as the slightly injured Cleveland Cavaliers play against the Atlanta Hawks, on the road, in game 1 of the series.
The focus, despite the coaches, players and All-Stars in this meeting, is on James. His first season back in Cleveland, and there’s no one trying to hide behind team-building, patience and coming together anymore. James didn’t come back just to please fans or feel at home. He’s here to win a third championship and maybe more. Circumstances, however, haven’t been too lenient and forgiving.
Kevin Love is out of the playoffs with a shoulder injury he sustained in the first round. He might also opt out of his deal, but that’s a different matters; for general managers to deal with, and probably LeBron James, who is the master recruiter in this league when it comes to convincing players to join him along for a title ride. Kyrie Irving is playing injured, although there’s no doubt about his participation after five days of rest.
The Hawks are a very different challenge than the Bulls. They don’t have a true center on the team, they spread the ball, they move it quickly and they hardly isolate. The Cavaliers, with players like James, Irving and the reformed J.R. Smith, are all about attacking the rim or doing things on their own. They lead the NBA in isolation plays in the playoffs. Against the Bulls it fit the script fine, but the kind of basketball the Hawks will be trying to force demands a slightly different approach, unless there’s going to be some matchup that the Cavaliers will abuse constantly.
The Hawks haven’t been able to force their style in the previous two rounds. They had a hard time getting by the Brooklyn Nets (six games) and ran into trouble against the Washington Wizards. Who knows, if it wasn’t for John Wall getting injured, we might be seeing another Pierce vs James playoff showdown, but what ifs and injuries are part of life. The Hawks have had to deal with their fair share of setbacks. They’re not here on luck. It’s merit that took them to this stage.
The Cavaliers, at their best during the regular season, were a team with four shooters (calling James a shooter for this purpose) and one Timofey Mozgov. It’s harder to make it work now, but the Hawks have been prone to find it difficult keeping teams off the glass and someone like Mozgov could come in a lot more handy than he did in the previous series. Tristan Thompson has been very good in the minutes he’s been on the floor, and that trend will probably continue in this series.
So can the Hawks, who look like a hobbled version of themselves and without any experience this late in the season, put a stop to James’ run of consecutive NBA finals? If they can make this a transition kind of series, with very little chances for slow isolations and half court offense, they might. Not that James or Irving suffer in that situation, but playing slow, methodic, scrappy basketball is something the Cavaliers can live with. The Hawks? Less so.