Both the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers have a few days to rest up before the Eastern conference finals begin, as LeBron James hopes Kyrie Irving is healthy enough for their most difficult challenge in this postseason so far.
The Hawks looked great in the regular season, against the Cavs and everyone else. But things change once it becomes a series thing. The Brooklyn Nets found ways to slow the game down. The Wizards combined that with the individual skill of some of their players and great work on the offensive glass. The Cavaliers offer a very different challenge, which includes a superstar that’s been to the last four NBA finals.
The regular season means nothing. We see it every year, in every postseason. The Hawks looking like the best team in the East didn’t translate all that well into playoff basketball. They’re through, but things are very different in the postseason. Not just because of injuries, like the one to Kevin Love, the police-inflicted one to Thabo Sefolosha or the one Kyrie Irving is dealing with for almost an entire series. The basketball is different, because of how game-to-game adjustments and more time to specifically prepare for the same opponent four-to-seven times in a short time span.
The Hawks struggled with Marcin Gortat and Nene attacking them on the boards. They’re going to have a problem with Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson as well. If Irving is healthy, Jeff Teague is going to struggle. He was lucky that John Wall missed games due to his hand fractures, but Irving is going to play, and that might mean more minutes for Dennis Schroder, which slows down the basketball for the Hawks but improves their on-ball defense.
But point guards aside, the player who touches the ball and runs the offense for the Cavaliers, for better and worse, is LeBron James. His usage rate of 35.4% is the highest in the postseason and actually his highest in a playoff since the 2008-2009 season, when the Cavaliers reached the conference finals, losing to the Orlando Magic. That time, a big man in the form of Dwight Howard changed everything for the Cavs. The Hawks don’t have a defensive presence like a younger Howard, although putting Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll on James can wear him down. Al Horford, despite not being a consistent, impassable post presence, is a problem under the rim, especially when he doesn’t have to travel too far out of the paint. No Love, remember?
I’m not sure how much James listens to David Blatt, but if he does, the Israeli-American coach needs to tell him to stop hogging the ball. Yes, sometimes the best thing for the Cavs is for James to shoot, but there has to be more than just him taking all the shots and starting all the plays. In his finest game of this postseason, the game 5 win over the Bulls, the Cavaliers actually looked better when he wasn’t playing. There has to be some balance in his attempts to dominate and win the game. Figure that one out, and the Cavaliers will be in the NBA finals.