By Mike Corasaniti
Through a variety of struggles and injuries faced along the way, the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers have fought their way to a matchup of the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference for a spot in the 2015 NBA Finals.
The Hawks – who have drawn comparison to last year’s San Antonio Spurs all season long– are marching into their first conference final appearance since 1970. Still undeniably the best overall team in the East up to this point, Atlanta now just has to get past the best player in the league in LeBron James.
After taking the regular season series 3-1 over Cleveland, the Hawks have certainly proven it can get past the Cavaliers. But despite taking the season series, earning home court advantage, and facing an injury-ridden Cleveland lineup, the Hawks are easily the underdogs heading into the East’s final matchup.
Can the Hawks' all-star lineup move past its recent struggles when it needs to the most? Or will LeBron James, carrying an injury-plagued supporting cast, make good on his promise to Cleveland and make it to his fifth straight NBA Finals?
A Word on the Cavaliers
The Cleveland backcourt will be crucial for a Cavs team looking to make its first finals appearance since 2007.
At the point guard position, Kyrie Irving can be one of the most difficult players in the league to defend once he gets into a groove. Multiple injuries however have limited the star to playing below his full capacity. And though the Cavs got some surprise support late from Matthew Dellavedova against Chicago, it’s way too early to dub the backup point guard an essential piece to a championship run.
Luckily, as far as role players go, the Cavaliers found some pretty solid ones in their shooting guards J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. If the two former Knicks can limit their turnovers and continue to provide consistent offensive support, it should provide enough support for James and big men Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson to stay rolling.
Indeed it’s difficult to worry too much about Cleveland’s chances whenever James is leading the way. But as history as shown for LeBron in the postseason, he’s going to need some help.
The Hawks earned the East’s top seed thanks to their largely unselfish team-oriented system, but that system could not have thrived nearly as well if not for some stellar individual performances, none more notably than that out of guard Kyle Korver. But after putting forth one of the most impressive 3-point shooting marks in NBA history this season, Korver has been struggling mightily recently.
Korver's offensive showing against the Wizards in the conference semifinals was one of the worst of his entire postseason career, and a repeat showing against Cleveland could be fatal for Atlanta’s chances moving forward. Luckily, the Hawks still boast a plethora of scoring threats in their big men Al Horford, Paul Millsap, and DeMarre Carroll, who have all been putting up at least 15 points per game in the playoffs.
Still, the Hawks will need Korver to find his rhythm again sooner rather than later. For Atlanta to give its frontcourt the scoring opportunities they need, they will need help from more than just point guard Jeff Teague to draw out defenders.
In short, the Hawks have declined on offense this postseason while at the same time. And even accounting for the absence of Kevin Love, the Cavaliers have only improved on defense. These trends don’t bode well for the East’s top seed.
If the Hawks as a team can return to its offensive efficiency that it enjoyed throughout the regular season then it’s going to be a completely different series. But with Cleveland’s defense coming together at just the right time, that doesn’t seem all too likely.
Certainly, LeBron James and his teams have faltered in the playoffs before, but going against the superstar is still never a safe bet. Don’t expect that to be likely to change this series either. Cavaliers in six.