Last season this big playoff showdown — the top two seeds in the East — turned into a rout as Cleveland swept Atlanta out of the playoffs. This time around both teams are healthier: The Cavaliers have Kevin Love and a healthy Kyrie Irving; the Hawks have Thabo Sefolosha back, Kyle Korver (knocked out of the series in Game 2) and a healthy Paul Millsap. Here are three things to keep an eye on through this series, followed by a prediction.
1) Can Atlanta slow LeBron James? The key to the Hawks’ chances in this series is their defense, which ranked second in the NBA over the course of the season and was Spurs-like after the All-Star break. Atlanta held Boston to 38 percent shooting for that five-game series. However, when the Hawks and Cavs met this regular season LeBron averaged 27.3 points and shot 58 percent. Atlanta did not have an answer for him. Thabo Sefolosha (who missed this playoff series last year, thank you NYPD) will draw time on him, as will Kent Bazemore and Paul Millsap. None of them are a great matchup. The Hawks need to limit LeBron’s transition opportunities, and they need to force him to be a jump shooter — he got 14 points per game in the paint against Detroit, Atlanta has to limit that. Which is much easier said than done. And sometimes he just nails the jumper anyway (although he did struggle with it vs. Detroit). LeBron is going to get his; Atlanta has to at least make him work for it and be less efficient.
2) Who wins the Kyrie Irving vs. Jeff Teague point guard matchup? As good as that LeBron guy was, Irving was the Cavaliers best player and the guy knocking down key shots in the first round against Detroit. Irving was hot from deep in the first round, hitting 16-of -34 from three. However, Irving can over-dribble and not move the ball at times, which is death against the Hawks defense. The Cavs need to beat Atlanta with passing. Teague needs to defend Irving with energy, but he must score as well and make Irving work on the defensive end. Teague led the Hawks with 16.5 points per game against Boston, and in the Hawks three games against Cleveland this season averaged 20.7 points and 7.3 assists. For the Hawks to have any chance Teague has to play this matchup to a standstill.
3) Can Atlanta keep Cleveland off the offensive glass? Despite the considerable rebounding prowess of Millsap, the Hawks were the sixth worst defensive rebounding team in the league this season. Cleveland was a top 10 offensive rebounding team this season, and their starting lineup with Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love can generate a lot of second chance looks. Which is something the Hawks simply cannot afford this series — it’s tough enough to defend the Cavaliers without giving them second chances. In those regular season matchups, the Hawks struggled with this, which is part of the reason the Cavaliers swept all three meetings.
4) Might this be Kevin Love’s breakout series? This is a good matchup for Love, despite the Hawks having some good individual defenders. Atlanta often will switch pick-and-rolls, which should allow Love to either pop out for a clean look at a jumper, or head to the post and overwhelm a smaller defender. Love and Irving in the pick-and-roll (with LeBron still hanging out on the court as a distraction) could be challenging for Atlanta to stop. However, the real key for Love is that he’s going to have to defend the All-Stars Millsap and Al Horford — if Love can do a solid job there the Cavaliers odds of winning go way up.
Prediction: Cavaliers in five. These are not going to be easy games for Cleveland, you’re far more likely to see six games in this series rather than another sweep. But Atlanta needs everything to go perfectly in this series to win, and the Cavaliers have a focused LeBron James who is not going to let that happen.