NBA Eastern Conference Finals Preview: 5 Burning Questions

Hard Foul Sports co-founder Evan Sally previews the highly anticipated match up between the number 1 seed Atlanta Hawks and the 2 seed Cleveland Cavaliers with the 5 questions he’s thinking about as we await the start of the series on Wednesday.

What’s wrong with the Hawks?
Atlanta has struggled in these playoffs so far. Surprisingly, it took 6 games to defeat the lowly Brooklyn Nets in the first round, and even though dispatching a Washington Wizards team in 6 games is nothing to be ashamed of (when Washington’s best player John Wall missed 2 games and was limited in others due to a broken wrist), it’s a cause for concern for Atlanta’s prospects going forward. After shooting 47% from the field and 38% from the 3 point line in the regular season, ranking 4th and 2nd in the league respectively, those percentages have fallen to 43% and 34%, ranking 9th and 8th in the playoffs respectively. These are not promising statistics for Hawks fans that watched Atlanta’s blistering offense lead them to 60 wins and the 1st seed in the East.

While the Hawks offensive struggles are clear throughout the roster, nowhere is it more clear than with the play of Kyle Korver. The veteran sharpshooter torched the league this year, shooting an incredible 49% from 3 during the regular season – best in the league for any player with over 200 attempts. Due to his remarkable efficiency, just the threat that Korver could break free for a 3 kept defenses honest and didn’t allow the man guarding Korver to ever leave him to help elsewhere, unless he wanted to get burned. This gave the Hawks offense great spacing, allowing room for Jeff Teague, Al Horford and Paul Millsap to operate on the interior. Korver’s shooting has fallen off a cliff in the postseason, shooting 35% from 3 in the Hawks’ 12 playoff games so far. This has allowed defenders to sag off Korver and clog up the lane more, limiting the Hawks offense as a whole. Whether it’s because he’s had to face tougher defenders more consistently and teams are able to better game plan for him, or he’s just going through an unfortunately timed slump, it’s key for Korver to get his 3 point shot to fall for the Hawks offense to get back on track.

Can Cleveland’s role players keep it up?
In the absence of an injured Kevin Love, LeBron James struggling with his jump shot, and Kyrie Irving being hobbled by an injured foot and knee, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ bench has needed to pull up the slack. They’ve performed that task very well. No better example of this was in the Cavs’ Game 6 victory over the Chicago Bulls to close out that series. Things did not look good for the Cavaliers with 9:50 left to go in the 2nd quarter of that game. The game was tied 35-35. Kyrie Irving had just left the game with a knee injury, LeBron’s jumper still wasn’t falling, and the game was in Chicago with the Bulls season on the line. Instead of folding up as they easily could have and waiting for Game 7 in Cleveland, the Cavs’ role players took over. Over the remaining 34 minutes of the game, Cleveland outscored Chicago 59 to 38, as 19 points from Irving’s backup Matthew Dellavedova led a well balanced scoring attack, and Tristan Thompson’s 17 rebounds helped lead the way defensively.

Dellavedova and Thompson, along with JR Smith and Iman Shumpert, played much of the end of the game with LeBron James and were dominant, outscoring Chicago by 18 points over their 14 minutes together. Cleveland may have found something with this smaller lineup that allows LeBron to play at the power forward spot alongside Tristan Thompson, giving them quickness on the perimeter defensively, and shooting and spacing around LeBron on offense. But in order for it to remain effective, Shumpert, Smith, Dellavedova, Thompson, and when he’s in the game, Timofey Mozgov, have to keep up their current play, especially if Dellavedova has to play for an injured Kyrie Irving. On one hand, playing so well against a tough Chicago defense should have prepared them for this series. On the other hand, role players tend to handle the pressure of a deep run in the playoffs worse than stars do, and they also tend to play worse on the road than at home, and Cleveland does not have home court advantage in this Eastern Conference Finals series.

Will the real LeBron and Kyrie show up?
In this situation, showing up means two different things to each of the Cavaliers’ remaining stars. In LeBron James’s case, will the usual efficient LeBron show up? LeBron’s counting stats look fantastic through 10 games of the playoffs, averaging almost 27 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists a game. But when you’re the greatest player in the world, your expectations are going to be absurdly high, and despite his excellent stats in these categories, LeBron has not lived up to his high standards in others. His field goal percentage is way down, shooting 42% in the playoffs compared to 49% in the regular season. His turnovers are up, from 3.9 per game in the regular season to 4.6. And perhaps most shocking, his 3 point percentage has plummeted, from 35% during the season to a stunning 15% in the playoffs. LeBron is averaging less than one made 3 per game in the postseason while still attempting close to 5 a game. Bulls’ guard Jimmy Butler’s excellent defense on LeBron can attribute for some of his struggles, but James won’t get much of a break when playing the Hawks, who will throw DeMarre Carroll, an excellent defender on his own accord, on LeBron for much of the series. LeBron has to get his 3 point shot to fall, but if he doesn’t, he must abandon it early and start attacking the rim to get points for himself and his teammates. While he has been bailed out by teammates who made up for his shooting so far, LeBron will need to play more like he did in Game 5 against the Bulls when he scored 38 points on efficient shooting for the Cavaliers to make the NBA Finals.

In regards to Kyrie Irving, I mean show up in a literal sense. Kyrie has played well in his debut playoff season, averaging just under 20 points a game and shooting 46% from 3 point range in the first two series. This is made more impressive considering he’s had to deal with a right foot strain and knee tendonitis for most of the Cavaliers’ 10 playoff games. You can literally see him limping as he moves up and down the court. Irving further aggravated the knee injury in Game 6 against the Bulls, and while it is expected that he will play in Game 1 of the Conference Finals, his status will be in question for the remainder of the series. While the Cavs were able to pull out the Bulls series without Irving for most of the deciding game, defeating the Hawks without Irving is a much harder ask.

Cleveland Offense vs. Atlanta Defense: What’s going to give?
Despite LeBron’s struggles shooting, Kyrie being hobbled by injury and Kevin Love being out for the postseason, the Cavs still lead all teams in the NBA playoffs in offensive rating. Offensive rating is a stat that measures offensive efficiency by averaging how many points a team scores every 100 possessions they have on offense. Cleveland through two rounds has an O rating of 110.9, just ahead of the prolific Golden State Warriors. Atlanta, however, may be uniquely suited to handle the task of slowing the Cavs offense. Atlanta leads the playoffs in defensive rating through two rounds, allowing 100.5 points per 100 defensive possession, just ahead of the Chicago Bulls. The Hawks only have one elite defender in DeMarre Carroll, but the rest of the team is made up of very sound team defenders that know their role in Coach Mike Budenholzer’s defensive system. Atlanta employs a trapping strategy where they double the ball handler and force a quick pass, disrupting the flow of an offense and forcing turnovers. Cleveland must punish Atlanta when they try to trap, attacking double teams and finding the open shot before the Atlanta defenders can rotate back to their man. Rebounding will also prove key in this series, as Cleveland has been dominant on the offensive boards, turning 28% of their missed shots into second chance opportunities. Atlanta must limit the Cavs to only one shot per possession to slow down the Cleveland offense.

Who’s going to win?
It’s been the common belief that this would be the Eastern Conference Finals match up we would see, ever since LeBron came back from his 2 weeks of mid-season rest and Cleveland started to perform at a high level, and since Atlanta tore through the month of January going 17-0. It’s also been a common belief that the Hawks weren’t going to be able to beat a LeBron James-led team in the postseason. However, most of those common beliefs were formed before Kevin Love got knocked out with an injury and Kyrie was hobbled by an injury of his own. The Hawks are also facing problems of their own, with the decline of Kyle Korver’s shooting derailing the offense so far. Both coaches are Eastern Conference Finals virgins, with David Blatt for the Cavs and Mike Budenholzer for the Hawks. In both team’s current state, I’d have to give the advantage the Cavaliers, but it’s not by much. Even though LeBron is struggling with his jump shot right now, in a match up this close, it’s always safe to lean towards the team with the best player. It can be argued that Cleveland has the two best players in the series with LeBron and a hobbled Kyrie. But, if Korver can get his shooting turned around, all bets are off.

The Pick: Cavaliers in 6.


– Evan Sally, @Evan_Sally


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