PBT Eastern Conference Finals Preview: Atlanta Hawks vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

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SEASON RECORDS

Hawks: 60-22, first place in Eastern Conference.

Cavaliers: 53-29, second place in Eastern Conference.

Atlanta won the season series, 3-1.

KEY INJURIES

Hawks: Thabo Sefolosha is done for the year after a leg injury suffered during a nightclub incident in New York in April.

Cavaliers: Kevin Love (shoulder) is out for the season. Kyrie Irving is expected to play in Game 1, but he was limited in the Bulls series by foot and knee issues.

OFFENSIVE/DEFENSIVE RANKINGS (THROUGH FIRST TWO ROUNDS OF PLAYOFFS)

Hawks: 102 points scored per 100 possessions (9th in NBA); 98.2 points allowed per 100 possessions (2nd in NBA).

Cavaliers: 108.2 points scored per 100 possessions (1st in NBA); 98.8 points allowed per 100 possessions (4th in NBA).

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1. How much help will LeBron get? With Irving hobbled, the Cavs are going to need plenty of help from their supporting cast. J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert and even Matthew Dellavedova all stepped up at various points in the Bulls series, which was enough to make up for a relatively inefficient showing from James. DeMarre Carroll will be in the Jimmy Butler “LeBron stopper” role this series, and if he’s able to slow James down, it’s going to come down to how the secondary pieces fare. If LeBron has to win this series by himself, it’s not going to be an easy task against a team as deep as the Hawks.

2. The point guard battle: In February, a matchup between Kyrie Irving and Jeff Teague would have been the most exciting part of this series, when they were both All-Stars. But Irving has been hurt and largely ineffective, and Teague, who normally jumps a level in the playoffs, has been wildly inconsistent through the first two rounds. What was once a position of strength for both teams has become perhaps their greatest liability, and whichever point guard can give more could end up swinging the series.

3. Can Atlanta’s offense expose Cleveland’s defense? The Cavs’ defense has been outstanding in the first two rounds, but their strong performances came against an offensively limited Celtics team and a Bulls group that had been prone to long scoring droughts all season. Cleveland’s defense ranked 20th in the league in the regular season. In theory, Atlanta’s offense should shred them. But the Hawks haven’t been themselves on that end for most of the playoffs. Mike Budenholzer’s gameplan has remained the same, heavy on ball movement and a read-and-react philosophy—they just haven’t been able to execute it as effectively as they did in the regular season. If they can find that consistency, it will be very difficult for Cleveland to defend.

PREDICTION

It’s difficult to pick against LeBron, but Irving’s health is worrisome and Al Horford was outstanding at both ends of the floor in the Wizards series. Carroll is as capable as anyone when it comes to defending James, and if he can make him work for his points even close to the way Butler did in the second round, that places a heavy burden on Cleveland’s supporting cast. This could go either way but I’m going to take Hawks in 7.

Andre Iguodala sits fourth quarter with “lower leg soreness,” to get MRI Sunday

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DaMarcus Cousins. Kevin Durant.

Now you might be able to add Andre Iguodala to the list of injured Warriors. He only played 18 minutes in Game 3 Saturday night, none after he was taken out with 7:49 left in the third quarter. Asked about that after the game, Warriors coach Steve Kerr listed a hockey injury — lower leg soreness — and said an MRI was coming.

If he has to miss time, that would be another blow to the Warriors. Up 3-0 on Portland, Golden State can close this series out without him, but the Warriors are going to need Iguodala and Durant — and, ideally, Cousins — against the Bucks or Raptors in the NBA Finals starting on May 30.

Iguodala made friends and influenced people when he went back to the locker room late in the first quarter, deciding to flip off the hallway camera on his way.

We will see if the League has anything to say about that or lets it slide.

 

Jordan Bell spectacularly missed dunk, but Warriors reaction was perfect

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Golden State was starting to make its comeback, cutting the lead to eight midway through the third quarter when Draymond Green found Jordan Bell for the breakaway dunk and…

Ouch.

What was impressive though was the Warriors reaction. First, Steve Kerr didn’t take him out. Didn’t bench him, instead left him in and with that showed confidence.

Then there was Draymond Green, who was on ESPN’s Mic’d Up, and was heard encouraging Bell.

Then there was assistant coach Mike Brown, who tried to get Bell out of the moment, in a great story relayed by Ethan Straus of The Athletic.

“So Jordan played against my son Elijah,” Brown explained. “My oldest son played at Mater Dei High School in Orange County and Jordan played at Long Beach [Poly]. So they had a lot of games back in the day. So I went up to him and he thought I was serious, because we took the time out. He’s about to walk out of the huddle and I walk up to him and say, ‘Jordan, listen, don’t worry about the dunk. I saw about three or four of them back in the Long Beach days and you bounced back.’ He fell out laughing. He said, ‘Ah, MB, I didn’t do that back then!’ I said, ‘Yea you did! It’s all good, though!’”

It worked. Bell never lost confidence, never stopped playing the way he plays, and soon enough there was this.

With Portland going smaller and counting on their offense more, Bell is going to have a larger role in that matchup. This is exactly how you build up the confidence of a player so he will come through for you in those moments.

 

Damian Lillard reportedly playing through separated ribs suffered in Game 2

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Midway through the third quarter of Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, Portland’s Damian Lillard and Golden State’s Kevon Looney both dove for a loose ball near midcourt. Looney got it, threw the ball ahead to Stephen Curry, and in the process rolled over Lillard.

Lillard suffered separated ribs on that play, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Here is the play.

Lillard has shot 8-of-27 (29.6 percent) since the injury, including 5-of-18 in the Trail Blazers’ Game 3 loss.

Lillard shot 7-of-19 (36.8 percent) before the injury — the Warriors trapping him and forcing the ball out of his hands has been an issue for Lillard in this series, long before his collision with Looney.

Lillard himself did not bring the injury up, it was leaked. When asked in his postgame press conference Saturday night, Lillard admitted to being tired but would not use it as an excuse.

“Everybody’s tired,” Lillard said. “It’s the third round of the playoffs after a long season. Our last series, I got a lot of attention. The team was giving me a lot of attention and same thing in this series. It takes a lot to deal with that and then go out and chase guys around on the defensive end.

“But everybody’s putting that effort out. I mean, I feel fine enough to go out there and play 40 minutes like I have been, but you know, it’s definitely tiring.”

And he’s playing through pain on top of it.

Portland is already down 0-3 in this series and faces a win-or-it’s-over Game 4 on Monday night at the Moda Center.

Game 3 Déjà vu: Warriors slow down Lillard, come from behind to win, take 3-0 series lead

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It was Déjà vu all over again for the Warriors and Trail Blazers. And it all started with Damian Lillard.

The Warriors didn’t re-invent the wheel in this playoff series, they just have aggressively executed the game plan that has troubled Portland in the playoffs for years:

Take the ball out of Damian Lillard’s hands, dare anyone else to beat you.

Oklahoma City and Denver could not do it, but Golden State has. Every chance the Warriors get they trap Lillard off the pick-and-roll, and even when they don’t do that the Warriors show the second defender early. Lillard has struggled with his shot against that, he was 5-of-18 shooting in Game 3, and in the series he is now 15-of-46 (32.6 percent).

What Lillard is doing right is making the smart pass to the big on the short roll at the free throw line, creating a 4-on-3 (or sometimes 3-on-2) for the Trail Blazers to attack, but they have not consistently taken advantage of that.

“I think what they want me to do is make the correct play, and for me, I try to do that for as long as possible,” Lillard said. “You know, as long as I can do it and we can stay in the game or have a lead like we have the last two games when I’m just making the right plays, and guys are doing what they’re supposed to do on the weak side.

“But I think in Golden State’s minds, they know at some point, if we’re going to beat them, I’m going to have to be rolling. They are just kind of banking on the fact that we’ll just live with what’s happening right now. Keep getting the ball out of his hands and you know, at some point, we’ll probably be able to take over the game.”

Golden State did take over the game, in part bucause they have a playmaker as good as Draymond Green.

Green is the master of the short roll, and on Saturday night he was doing that, plus driving end-to-end, owning the glass, and generally being the best player on the floor on his way to 20 points on 12 shots, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists.

“I don’t even know what to say about Draymond, he was like a wrecking ball out there,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said postgame. “He was just destroying every in his path. The pace he was generating was incredible and it seemed like he never got tired.”

Green was critical to another dominant Golden State third quarter that sparked a comeback from 18 down in the third to win 110-99.

Golden State now has a stranglehold on the series, up 3-0. Game 4 is in Portland on Monday night.

The Warriors are now 4-0 without Kevin Durant, still out with a strained calf (he’s not expected to return this series). Stephen Curry, who had 36 in this win, has scored at least 33 in each of those wins.

In the most important ways, Game 3 felt like a replay of Game 2, just in a different arena.

Feeding off that home crowd and energy, the Trail Blazers raced out to an early lead and were the better team through the first 24 minutes. Portland shot 11-of-22 outside the paint in the first half, compared to 9-of-27 for Golden State. Portland had a 125.7 offensive rating in the first half thanks to that shooting, plus grabbing the offensive rebound on 34.8 percent of their missed shots.

More than the offense, Portland played good half-court defense in the first half, taking the Warriors out of their rhythm. They trapped Curry and Thompson with size — Moe Harkless and Myers Leonard if possible — and the Warriors struggled to adapt

Leonard played the best basketball of his career in the first half, with 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting (he finished with 16 points) and making plays like this:

All that had the Trail Blazers up 13 at the half. It was impressive, then again they were up 15 at the half in Game 2. The Warriors were not fazed.

“It all started with our second half defense, we held them to 33 points,” Steve Kerr said after the game. “We had amazing contributions off the bench, every single guy came in and made an impact.”

That bench mattered. The Golden State starters and core lineups got back in the game, taking a small lead, but when Green and Curry rested to start the fourth, Portland left their starters in and were still -3 in those critical minutes.

Curry and Green came in rested, and the Warriors leaned on them heavily the rest of the way with the Curry/Green pick-and-roll — Portland has no answers for that.

The Warriors run also seemed to shake the Portland offense. The Trail Blazers shot 8-of-27 (29.6 percent) from three after the first quarter, and for the game the Blazers missed 13 free throws (they shot just 60.6 percent as a team from the stripe).

Portland was led by CJ McCollum, who had 23 points on 20 shots.

He’s going to have to do better, Lillard is going to have to do a lot better, and the Blazers are going to have to find something special in the third quarter Monday night, or they will be swept right out of the playoffs.